Photo by Charity Maness/Fall River County Herald-Star
Alex and Cherokee Christopherson will head to Sioux Falls next month on a life saving journey; Alex will be giving his sister Cherokee a kidney, a kidney that may save her life.
By Charity Maness
HOT SPRINGS – In 2017 when Cherokee Christopherson of Hot Springs was celebrating the beauty of creating life, she was hit with the heartbreaking blow of complications with her kidneys; severe complications.
“She just seemed weak,” recalled her mother Annie, of the first signs of illness, “but I had recently suffered a series of debilitating strokes and our attention was mostly on me. Then when she got pregnant, she began to deteriorate quickly, we knew something was wrong.”
During a routine blood test at an early point in Cherokee’s pregnancy, the lab results showed her kidney function was reduced. Throughout the early stages of her pregnancy she continued to get worse, causing her doctor to run more tests, ultimately transferring her to a high risk OB-Gyn.
By the time Cherokee was 37 weeks pregnant, her kidneys were only functioning at 50 percent. At this time, to save Cherokee and her baby, the doctors induced labor. As soon as little baby Emma was born, a kidney biopsy was performed and Cherokee was subsequently diagnosed with chronic tubulointerstitial pathology with prominent interstitial inflammation and tubular cyst formation; a diagnosis often found when a person has had exposure to heavy metals.
The biopsy showed an unusually high level of lithium, however, how lithium got into her system was a total mystery.
Naturally occurring lithium can be found in drinking water and has proven to be an effective treatment for bi-polar disorder. Yet no tests were available on the drinking water nor did Cherokee suffer from bi-polar disorder, nor was she ever prescribed Lithium.
Now, with a newborn in her arms, Cherokee was told that her disease had progressed to end-stage renal disease and was immediately placed on a transplant list.
“Then the endless doctor and specialist appointments,” said Cherokee.
“Just about everything under the sun had to be checked,” said Annie. “Everything in her body had to be checked off before she would even be considered to be a transplant recipient, her dental, eyes, everything had to be good.”
“So many friends and family, and even people we didn’t know, came forward to start the testing to become a donor for Cherokee,” said Annie. But a donor was not to happen.
“It was so upsetting,” said Cherokee with tears in her eyes. “A lot of people went through the process, or started it, but some didn’t make it and some, at the last minute, they just dropped out.”
Some people came forward asking what the family would be willing to pay for a kidney. At first Annie admitted it was a shock, but “at this point I was willing to pay whatever I could to whoever was a match, I needed a kidney for my daughter,” said Annie.
About two and a half years into the wait, Cherokee’s sister Cheyenne had made it through the whole testing process and was a verified match. The family was beside itself with joy, the whole devastating wait would finally be over. But one more blow was headed Cherokee’s way. Cheyenne became pregnant.
“I didn’t want to tell anyone I was pregnant,” said Cheyenne, “being pregnant was a blessing, but at the same time heartbreaking because I couldn’t donate my kidney. Cherokee was the last person I told.”
Now, after almost four years of being on the transplant wait list, Cherokee had all but given up. Until her oldest brother Alex, who had offered in the very beginning yet was told he was overweight, stepped up to the plate.
“I lost 45 pounds and started the testing just after my birthday in October 2020,” said Alex.
There were blood tests, urine tests, compatibility tests, psychological tests, and more.
“Just when I finished all the tests I had to go to Sioux Falls and do it all again,” said Alex.
But all those tests paid off.
“On February 16th, 2021, I received the call, I was a match and I was accepted as a donor,” said Alex.
This news was just in time as at only 24 years old and now a slight 110 pounds, Cherokee’s kidney function is hovering just below 7 percent and she is beginning dialysis.
The transplant is scheduled for March 22.
Cherokee’s support person is her youngest brother Chason. And Alex will have his girlfriend Elizabeth Premo as his support person.
As Cherokee hugs her daughter tight she is thankful for this chance at life but admits “I’m very nervous.”
“I’m ready,” said Alex. “Let’s do this.”
“I’m nervous and scared,” said Annie, “but so thankful to the medical teams and all the people who have given us the help and guidance through these years.”
When Cherokee was first diagnosed, the town of Hot Springs rallied to support the family as the costs of medical care and support costs were becoming a heavy burden. Now, with resources depleted the family has created a Go Fund Me page titled Cheering on Cherokee Transplant.