Quirk of Fortune

UPDATED 06/15/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/15/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT

A household bursting with eight kids is bound to suffer its share of sibling rivalries, and the Brady clan of San Francisco was no exception. But any hard feelings over childhood squabbles evaporated when Bill, the youngest of the three Brady boys, suffered kidney failure 27 years ago at age 24. Brother Paul, then 26, promptly donated one of his own kidneys to save Bill from spending hours each week tethered to a dialysis machine. "It was by far the easiest, quickest, best decision I've ever made," says Paul, now 53. Adds Paul's twin sister, Connie Bowman: "Bill had a regular, normal life again, thanks to Paul. Life just went on."

Until last August, that is, when a San Francisco internist gave Paul some devastating news: Although he had been told at the time of the 1970 transplant that he had only a 1-in-30,000 chance of developing problems in the future, his remaining kidney was now failing, presumably due to high blood pressure. Paul's doctors discovered warning signs during a routine checkup several years ago. "I didn't tell anyone," Paul says. "There was no sense for me to worry about it, and no sense for anyone else." But by June of 1997, symptoms including chronic itching and the loss of appetite and memory had become too pronounced to ignore. "I got to the point that all I wanted was red snapper, popcorn and soda," he says.

Recipient Bill, now a healthy 51-year-old with his own landscaping business, tried to temper his concern with humor. "I said, 'You can have your kidney back,' " he recalls. " 'I've taken good care of it for 27 years.' " Though a reverse transplant is theoretically possible, it would consign Bill to Paul's fate and, for ethical reasons, no doctor would consider it.

Medical problems will almost certainly also rule out any kidney donation by the six other children of Pauline Farrelly, a former model who died in 1985, and Charles Brady, a tax auditor who died in 1979. Not that the sibs—Charlie, 55; Connie, 53; Jamie, 49; Joanne, 46; Nancy, 42; and Marion, 39—weren't eager to volunteer. "I called Connie and said, 'I'm younger,' " says Nancy. "I thought my kidney would be better." While some of Paul's 29 nieces and nephews await testing for a possible match, he sits on a nationwide waiting list of approximately 40,000 people (typical wait: two to three years). In the meantime he is on peritoneal dialysis, an outpatient procedure in which a catheter and filter remove toxins from his body.

After Bill was diagnosed in 1970 with kidney failure, probably the result of an untreated case of strep throat when he was 6, Paul was found to be an excellent genetic match. Says Connie: "It was just a miracle." Now, Paul is hoping for one of his own. An independent construction contractor, he hasn't been able to work since last September. While hospital bills have left him deeply in debt, he is able to pay some of his living expenses thanks to a monthly $1,100 Social Security check and loans from family and friends. Each day he faces two hour-long sessions of dialysis and one all-nighter in the two-story San Francisco house where he has lived alone since he and his wife of 15 years, Lauren Brady, now 46, divorced in 1991. "It's hard for me to get out of bed," says Paul with a nod to the cord that connects him to a machine each night. "Mornings are shot."

Still he keeps his wit about him. "It gives me a great opportunity to get away from the phone," Paul says of his dialysis sessions. And although his life expectancy without a donor kidney may only be five years, Paul remains upbeat, if a tad macabre. "Don't leave your doors unlocked," he quips. "I'll find that donor."

Jeremy Helligar
Penelope Rowlands in San Francisco

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