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Rutgers student's kidney donation inspires master's thesis

Laura Allen, a graduate student in the School of Health Professions, was inspired by her father's experience to write her master's degree thesis, which revolved around monitoring nutrients. – Photo by Courtesy of Laura Allen

A Rutgers graduate student’s recent kidney donation to her father is the inspiration for her current master’s thesis. 

Kidney disease is a condition that affects 31 million people in the United States, and is the ninth leading cause of death, according to the American Kidney Fund. One person who was diagnosed with this disease is Charles "Tom" Allen, who is the father of Laura Allen, a graduate student at the Rutgers School of Health Professions.

Genetically, Tom Allen had been at risk from the beginning. "We have had a family history of kidney problems," Laura Allen said.

Tom Allen was born with only one kidney and was also diagnosed with type 1 diabetes early on in his life. Although he maintained a healthy diet and controlled his intake of sugars, the diabetes still had an effect on him over time.

In February 2017, Tom Allen received the news that he was in renal failure, which is when the kidney is unable to remove waste and balance fluids. This diagnosis required a major change in his daily routine. 

Tom Allen then had to visit his doctor to receive dialysis treatment, which is the process of removing blood from a person’s artery and purifying it by adding vital substances and later returning it to the vein. This meant his blood had to be purified through a machine on a regular basis. 

At first, the diagnosis had been seen as a short-term ordeal, so her father had not been looking for a donor, Laura Allen said. A year into dialysis, the situation had changed, "taking a toll on (his) quality of life," Lauren Allen said.

Tom Allen was losing weight due to the treatment, and had to spend approximately 4 hours at the hospital three times a week to keep up with the dialysis treatment.

As a result, he decided to peruse the option of getting a transplant. Even before her father’s decision, Laura Allen offered to be his donor. When he finally expressed the need for a kidney, she was more than willing to go through the steps to help her father. 

The pre-screening tests to become an organ donor were thorough. During the process, Laura Allen said she felt excitement at the idea of her father being able to recover, even though a great amount of patience was needed for the process. Tom Allen made the decision to get a transplant in May 2018, but the surgery took place later that year in October.

When the date of the surgery grew near, Laura Allen said she felt anxious about the process.

“Working in a hospital, you can see what can or can’t go wrong ... I got in my head a little bit, but it was never anything where I said I’m not gonna do this,” she said.

But after the surgery, Laura Allen said she had a greater feeling of appreciation for her own patients, since she was a dietitian. She recounted the feeling of nausea after the operation, and realized why patients were unwilling to eat after undergoing their surgeries. 

Her hospital visit was less than a week long, but Laura Allen still had to adjust when she returned home after the operation.

Laura Allen also had to write a thesis for her master’s degree, and chose to work with Laura Byham-Gray, an expert in renal nutrition and professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences. 

She chose to work with Byham-Gray’s study because “it blended dietary intake and dialysis,” and it was a topic that related to her father. Laura Allen's thesis thus revolved around monitoring nutrients like the fat, cholesterol and fiber of patients on the dialysis treatment.

The ultimate goal of her study is to help guide medical practitioners in giving a more optimal diet for patients going through dialysis. 

Since the surgery, Tom Allen has recovered, is off dialysis and is returning to a normal routine. Though the father-daughter duo had been close before the transplant, the experience caused a stronger bond to form.

“I just want to check in on him more and make sure he is feeling well,” Laura Allen said. 

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