Naval Air Systems Command aviation training manager Helen Wernecke spends most of her days tracking major acquisition milestones for the Navy.
In October, Wernecke marked another key milestone, not measured with databases and engineering metrics, but with grace.
The General Training department head for the Naval Aviation Training Systems Program Office (PMA-205) responded to an email in May 2007, and with the click of a mouse, triggered a chain of events that led her to donate a kidney to fellow church member Michael Pipkin.
More than five years later, Wernecke and Pipkin celebrated the journey that began with an email request from his wife. In the email, Dawn Pipkin shared that her husband, born with only one kidney, needed a transplant. She asked friends and family with type O blood to consider contacting the Washington Hospital Center to be screened as donors.
Five minutes later, Wernecke forwarded the email to her husband, Ray Wernecke, telling him she was interested in becoming a donor.
"As soon as I read [the email], I thought 'I'm type O blood,'" Wernecke said. "'How can I turn my back on this man without even giving it some sort of due diligence?'"
Pipkin, a lawn and garden wholesales representative, was no stranger to Wernecke. Both families are members of Trinity Lutheran Church in Great Mills, Md., and their spouses have taught Sunday school together for more than 15 years.
"I knew Mike, but not as well as I knew Dawn," Wernecke said. "Mike used to sit directly across the aisle from me at church. When I'd get up to go for communion, he'd wink or give me some sort of greeting."
After briefly discussing the email with her husband, Wernecke called the transplant center. She completed its checklist of nearly 70 questions on everything from height and weight to blood pressure and family medical history.
After answering all the questions, Wernecke said the woman on the other end of the phone said, "Oh my God, you passed."
Next, was a visit to the transplant center, so they could verify the information provided during the phone interview.
"I went up to the Washington Hospital Center on my next Friday off because I didn't want to tell anyone yet," Wernecke said. "They ran all the tests and it wasn't a week later they were calling me again."
Wernecke was almost a perfect match for someone who wasn't a blood relative.
She and her husband, again, discussed all the options and decided to tell their two children, who were 16 and 14 at the time. "My husband and kids were 100 percent behind me and there was never a doubt in their mind," she said. "That was just the most amazing thing."
It was then time to tell the Pipkins.
"Mike was really sick that day, and we insisted that they meet us at Panera Bread [in California, Md.]," Wernecke said. "'I need to fess up,' I told them. 'I pursued the 800-number. I'm a match and I want to go through with this. I want to give you one of my kidneys.' It was unbelievably moving."
Michael Pipkin said it was a surreal moment for him.
"I knew something was up when they called and told us there was something we had to talk about," he said. "I just didn't know what. After Wernecke told me she wanted to give me a kidney, I automatically went into the thought process of 'Will she be OK?' 'How will this affect the [families'] relationship?'"
Despite his reservations about knowing his kidney donor, Pipkin said he made peace with the situation.
"I was at a time where I had to let go and I couldn't be in charge," he said. "The right people were put in the right place for this event."
Wernecke and Pipkin began prepping for the surgery, which was scheduled in July, however, during Wernecke's final chest X-ray, doctors discovered a shadow on her lung.
"One of the worst moments in this whole process was when Ray called me and said, 'We found something and we have to put the surgery on hold,'" Pipkin said. "It was a terribly emotional day. The hardest part was not being able to talk to Helen and find out how she was. I knew how I was and where I was. I didn't know where she was."
A pulmonary specialist confirmed the shadow was the remnant of an old cold working its way out of Wernecke's lung and wouldn't affect her health during surgery, so they rescheduled surgery for Oct. 3.
Surgeons removed Wernecke's kidney via laparoscopic surgery, performing the operation through small incisions.
"Laparoscopic procedures are now the procedure of choice for donor nephrectomies, [the medical term for removing a kidney]," said Dr. Bryan Becker, transplant physician and former National Kidney Foundation president. "Donors have shorter recovery times, less pain, are able to eat sooner and end up returning to work more quickly."
The average surgery to remove a kidney can take anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours, he said.
Wernecke, who has worked for the federal government for 27 years, was back at work two weeks later. Prior to the surgery, Wernecke researched her options for taking time off and found that former President Bill Clinton had signed the Organ Donor Leave Act offering support for federal employees interested in organ donation. The time off comes out of administrative leave. With the support of her supervisor, Wernecke was offered one week of administrative leave to use in conjunction with one week of personal leave.
Pipkin said he noticed a difference immediately.
"I felt great," he said. "It was like turning on a light switch. The doctors said the kidney was producing urine before they could even finish the surgery."
Within the first 24 hours, the doctors decreased Pipkin's anti-rejection medicine by half. "He'll be on [the medication] for life, but that's how clear of a match we were," Wernecke said.
"Less than a year from the time we identified the problem, we had the transplant," Pipkin said. "I was very fortunate for turnaround time. There are many more people on the waitlist than there are kidneys coming in."
Becker said the average wait time for a kidney varies based on where the person lives as well as blood type, but can range anywhere from one to more than five years.
A transplanted kidney can function between 10 and 12 years, depending on whether the donor is living, deceased, related or unrelated, according to the National Kidney Foundation, a health organization that focuses on fighting kidney disease. The ideal donor is a living relative, followed by a living non-relative, the group said.
For Wernecke, donating her kidney was more than just the right thing to do.
"My faith tells me, you don't brag about things; you just do what you've got to do and if something good for someone else comes out of it then that's great," she said. "It brought a lot of people in our church closer together. It made me have conversations with my siblings that I'd never had with them before. It was really a good thing."
Pipkin said this five-year milestone has been a gift of life.
"I celebrate every day, but milestones allow you to stop and look at the accumulation of days that became weeks and then years," he said. "For baseball fans, it is like what Cal Ripken said when he reached his milestone of 2,131 consecutive games played. He was grateful to be able to be in the starting lineup every day, and that is what he played for, but what a celebration it was when he reached the milestone. I am grateful for every day that I am in the starting lineup and will celebrate the milestones as long as God chooses to give them to me."
Today, the Werneckes and Pipkins are more than just church members. Wernecke receives a platter of baked goods from Pipkin's mother during holidays and special occasions, and they are invited to each other's family events. Wernecke, a St. Mary's County native, said she teases Pipkin that he's a "county boy" now, since he is not originally from the area.
As for Wernecke, life goes on much the way it did before she donated her kidney. She manages a busy lifestyle of work, exercise and family commitments.
"There was really no effect from this," Wernecke said. "Every once in a while, I'll get fatigued if we're out running around, but I only need to sit for a couple minutes before my energy is renewed. They said unexplained fatigue could be a side effect."
Meanwhile, Pipkin's wife and Wernecke's husband continue to teach Sunday school. "Mike's still sitting across the aisle winking at me and I always get a kiss and hug from him now," she said.