Kari Roberts always wanted to lose weight, but a powerful motivation finally helped her succeed: She needed to be healthy enough to give her brother a kidney.
Roberts, 35, of Crestwood, Ill., a Chicago suburb, weighed 320 pounds three years ago when her brother, Tony Bolda, learned he had a serious kidney disorder. She started trying to lose weight as soon as she heard he needed a transplant because she couldn't even be tested to see if she was a match until she slimmed down.
"You have to be healthy to even be considered as a donor, so there was no question but to get up and do it," Roberts said.
Bolda, 40, has IgA nephropathy, an illness in which an antibody builds up and attacks the kidney, leading to kidney failure. He first realized something was wrong when his father checked his blood pressure with a home machine and it was sky-high.
"I was scared for him, I was real scared for him," Roberts said, adding that she and Bolda are the closest siblings in the family.
Their two other sisters both had medical issues that ruled them out as potential donors. "It felt silly to not be able to help him because I was overweight," she said.
Her brother knew she could do it: "I have faith in her," he said.
Roberts' biggest helpers were her mom Marty Bolda and her MP3 player. "My mom … would get excited every time I lost a few more pounds," she said.
Roberts followed a strict low-fat diet with lots of chicken, chicken tacos and salads. "My mom found the most ways to make chicken taste different," Roberts said, laughing.
Roberts, a working mother of three, loves music and found it helped her keep to an exercise routine. "I would put music into my MP3 player every couple of days to keep myself motivated, to make me want to get out there and work out," she said.
She started out walking a mile a day and worked up to three miles a day.
"I think it's really cool that she was able to do it without all those crazy fad diets and all that. … She did it by eating well and hard work," Bolda said.
The weight loss was necessary, according to Dr. R. Michael Hofmann, medical director of the Living Kidney Donor Program at the University of Wisconsin Hospital, because of the potential risk to Roberts, not her brother.
"The more a person is overweight or obese, the greater the chance they have of developing high blood pressure or diabetes," said Hofmann, who is not involved in this specific case. "Having one kidney instead of two, you're at a little more risk" if you develop those conditions, he said.
Most centers would turn down potential living donors who have BMI (body mass index) greater than 35, he said.
In April, Roberts was in good enough shape to be tested to see if she was a match. Waiting for the results, she called every couple of days. "They called me one day and said Kari, 'You're a match and not only are you a match, but you're a perfect match.'"
"We had a little cry together," Bolda said.
His surgery is scheduled to take place shortly at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Both brother and sister are keeping fingers crossed that there is no rejection of the transplanted kidney and that both bounce back quickly.
The chance of rejection is low, Hofmann said. About 98 percent of transplanted kidneys will be working a year later if it's a first-time transplant, he said.
But he cautioned that Roberts should be aware that her weight loss needs to be maintained for her lifelong health. "We do have people who have been able to lose weight [to be donors]," he said, "but more than 80 percent will gain weight back."
Roberts is feeling optimistic about her long-term health, and her brother's. "Everybody keeps telling me that they think I'm great for saving him, but in reality I think we saved each other," Roberts said.
As for naming for her weight-loss regime, she suggested, "the inspiration diet."
Barbara Pinto and Andrew Fies contributed to this report.