Brendan Conner often speaks fondly of "KJ," making statements like, "KJ's got this. He's doing great today." But the affectionate nickname doesn't reference a child or a pet, as one might assume. KJ is Brendan's kidney, a gift of life from his cousin, Kyle.
Brendan – a Platte City, Missouri, resident, basketball player, occasional tuxedo model and diehard Ohio Buckeyes fan – was diagnosed with Alport syndrome (glomerulonephritis) as a baby. The genetic condition involves progressive kidney disease.
"Let's just say my mom wasn't expecting the black color of the contents of my diaper," Brendan says. "We were off to the pediatrician right away."
Brendan began seeing a nephrologist, but enjoyed what he calls "a very normal childhood."
"Growing up, I was just like any other kid," he says. "I had to watch my diet a bit, monitoring my potassium and phosphorous intake, but I played sports. I lifted weights. I played football in college."
The signs of progressing kidney disease eventually emerged. In late high school, Brendan failed a hearing test – another characteristic of advancing Alport syndrome – and soon required hearing aids. His glomerular filtration rate (GFR) – a measure of kidney function at 60 or higher in a person with healthy kidneys – fell to 23.
"I had thought this was something I just had to deal with and accept," Brendan recalls. "Everyone has something difficult to get through in life. This was mine."
But Brendan's care team introduced a different strategy.
"Brendan's disease was less aggressive than many experience, allowing him to avoid dialysis for many years," says Brendan's nephrologist Amna Ilahe, MD, of The University of Kansas Health System. "However, it is important for patients like Brendan to have an awareness of kidney transplant so they can begin the process early. Receiving a transplant before dialysis becomes necessary is the ideal progression and provides the best long-term result."