FARGO — Julie Larson has faced multiple health problems over the years, but they never really kept her away from her first grade classroom.

The 58-year-old is diabetic, has undergone gastric bypass surgery and fought two bouts of breast cancer.

Even during chemotherapy and radiation treatments, she didn’t miss any time with her students, she said.

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But her latest health challenge has forced her to retire several years earlier than planned.

Larson needs a kidney transplant and is asking people to consider being tested as a possible donor.

“It would be the most amazingly unselfish thing a person could do,” she said.

Larson is proving to be a difficult match, however, which will require a larger than usual pool of potential donors.

Merilee Ottoson, Larson’s sister-in-law and neighbor, is among several who’ve stepped forward to be considered, saying it’s what Larson would do if the situation were reversed.

“She's got a big heart. She just would give to anybody that she could give to. I know she would,” Ottoson said.

Always an educator

Education is all in the family for Larson. Her husband Brad is the principal at Carl Ben Eielson Middle School. She spent 34 years teaching, the last 20 of them at Fargo’s Bennett Elementary.

Larson has always taught first grade, relishing in the task of helping children learn to read and write.

“Yep, I never got promoted,” she said with a laugh.

About three years ago, she started not feeling well and had a poor appetite.

She held off on seeing a doctor, but finally relented and had blood work done.

That evening, the doctor’s office called to say she should get to the hospital right away because her kidney function was dangerously low.

After being stabilized, she’s mostly managed with the condition since.

But the numbers have continued to diminish, to where her kidneys function at 8 to 10%, translating to stage 5 kidney failure.

Doctors have said the cause may be the way her body processes oxalates, which are natural substances in many foods.

Even so, she feels fortunate because she’s not requiring dialysis.

When that point comes, she might opt for home dialysis until a kidney donor can be found.

Larson also had to wait until she was two years past her cancer battle before being eligible for a transplant.

She’ll mark that cancer-free anniversary next week, on Wednesday, Nov. 11.

Julie Larson, who’s beaten cancer twice, is in stage 5 kidney failure. Here she's helping watch her grandkids in Fargo. Chris Flynn / The Forum
Julie Larson, who’s beaten cancer twice, is in stage 5 kidney failure. Here she's helping watch her grandkids in Fargo. Chris Flynn / The Forum

A tough match

One reason Larson will be a tricky match is that she has a high level of antibodies toward different tissue types in her body, which could mean a high risk of rejection of a donated kidney.

Those antibodies form in people who’ve had a previous transplant or a blood transfusion, neither of which she’s had.

It also happens during pregnancy, and she has two sons.

She’ll need to find a donor with compatible blood and tissue typing, and who has a low number of those antibodies.

In fact, Larson and Ottoson don’t have the same blood type, so Ottoson can’t give her sister-in law a kidney directly; however, she may be able to be part of a “paired exchange.”

That involves two pairs of living donors and their recipients, where the recipients “swap” donors so that each gets a kidney from a compatible donor.

If Ottoson can’t be a match through this paired exchange, she wants to be Larson’s advocate throughout the process and help grow the pool of potential donors.

'One to keep and one to share'

In a recent Facebook post, Larson answered a few commonly asked questions she’s receiving from friends, including whether people can get along with one kidney as well as they do with two.

“My nephrologists have said you're given two kidneys for two reasons. One to keep and one to share,” Larson said.

Her insurance will cover all of the donor’s costs related to the transplant.

The procedure is done with a laparoscope, meaning the incision is very small. A donor would typically spend two to three days in the hospital afterward.

Anyone interested in being considered for donation can call Sanford Health Transplant Center in Fargo at 701-234-6715.

In the meantime, Larson continues to seek joy and peace in life.

She cares for her two grandchildren, who are seven-month-old twins, three days a week, and she says being able to see them grow would be fantastic.

“I’d love to have another 20 years,” she said.