Medical students know they will be called upon to make many sacrifices during their rigorous training. But Kent Peterson’s sacrifice was not something you would find in any medical school textbook.
Peterson’s father, Gordy, had battled chronic kidney disease for as long as Kent could remember. Kent’s decision to go to medical school was sparked, in part, by accompanying his dad to frequent medical appointments.
His mother, Margo, a nurse, encouraged his interest by introducing him to a surgeon in their rural Minnesota community. He jumped at the invitation to watch a gastric bypass procedure, which left an indelible impression in his mind.
“I had never been more amazed by what human hands can accomplish,” says Peterson. “I witnessed this patient transform his lifestyle following the surgery. After seeing the immediate and life-changing impact surgery can have, I knew this is where I was meant to be.”
Peterson’s first year at the University of Minnesota Medical School was challenging, yet rewarding. But just as he was about to start his second year, his dad’s condition worsened.
Doctors told the family that a kidney transplant was Gordy’s best chance for a normal life. Unfortunately, no one in the family had a compatible blood type. Doctors warned that the wait for a donor could be three to five years, and that Gordy would likely have to start dialysis, a cumbersome process that can increase the risk of complications following a kidney transplant.
But there was another option. Peterson learned of a program that would allow him to donate on his father’s behalf instead of directly to his father. This concept, called a paired kidney exchange, increased the chances of finding compatible donors for patients whose families could not provide a match.
In August 2015, the Peterson family learned that a donor kidney was available for Gordy. During Gordy’s surgery, the Petersons connected with the family of the donor, a Minnesota man whose children and grandchildren had gathered in the hospital waiting room.
“The donor’s family was so gracious and provided invaluable support and camaraderie to my mom, brother, and me during the stressful days following my dad’s transplant surgery,” Peterson says.
Two weeks after his dad’s surgery, Kent Peterson was back in the operating room, this time as a kidney donor. After the procedure, Peterson reached out to the person who had received his kidney, a Missouri woman who had been on dialysis for years. An unlikely friendship blossomed and continues to this day. Peterson cherishes the heartfelt messages his friend sends each year on the anniversary of the transplant.
Change of plans
Now a fourth-year medical student, Peterson is enormously grateful for the support he’s received, including financial assistance through the Dr. William C. and Ruth Anne Nelson Scholarship and the Dr. Richard A. and Mari Carlson Scholarship.
I had never been more amazed by what human hands can accomplish. I witnessed this patient transform his lifestyle following the surgery. After seeing the immediate and life-changing impact surgery can have, I knew this is where I was meant to be.
– Kent Peterson, on observing surgery for the first time
Richard Carlson was himself the recipient of a scholarship from the Minnesota Medical Foundation when he attended medical school at the U of M. “It made a huge difference to my wife and me because we were struggling to make ends meet solely through her income as a public school teacher,” he says. “Because of our gratitude for this scholarship assistance, we decided to ‘give back’ by establishing this named scholarship. Our goal is to eventually fund the scholarship to provide full tuition support for a medical student each year.”
Gordy Peterson has regained his strength and vigor, thanks to the paired kidney exchange. “My dad has returned to his former energetic self,” Kent says. “He loves fishing and hunting, and it’s wonderful to see him enjoying the outdoors again.”
And the transplant experience itself has set Peterson on a different career path than he originally imagined. Although he had planned to practice as a general surgeon in a rural community, Peterson is now interested in becoming a transplant surgeon. He is preparing for a May wedding with his fiancée, Mariah Nelson, a nurse at University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, and a surgical residency at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Peterson says he is grateful for the support of his fiancée, family, friends, numerous physician mentors, and scholarships. “The financial support has made medical school less stressful, allowing me to pursue my dreams,” he says. “It’s an honor to be recognized among my outstanding peers with these scholarship awards.”