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Two Pounds to Go

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Estimated read time: 8-9 minutes

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Cheryl Rosenthal of Westlake Village lay on her right side on the operating table. With the help of pencil-thin instruments about a foot long, two surgeons guided her left kidney out of a 4-inch incision in her abdomen.

"Stay parallel. Nice and smooth," coached the head surgeon, Peter Schulam, vice chairman of the Department of Urology at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Schulam and the assisting surgeon, Jim Hu, placed the pink kidney, which was hardly bigger than a change purse, into a plastic bowl of iced saline where Schulam began to gently cleanse the blood from the organ so it could be transferred into the next operating room. There, Cheryl's father, Les Rosenthal, waited in the peace of anesthesia to receive his daughter's kidney.

Cheryl had fought to lose enough weight to get medical approval to donate the organ to her ailing father. Wednesday's transplant at the UCLA Medical Center represented the loss of her last two pounds, the weight of her kidney. Already, she had shed 45 pounds -- 37 of those in a three-month period.

She was the only member of her family whose tissue and blood matched her father's, but doctors told her the transplant couldn't be done safely until she shed 30 to 40 pounds.

The nine-month odyssey toward this day meant constant dieting and hours at the gym as Cheryl sweat her way toward her goal, always fearing she wouldn't take the weight off in time to help her weakening father.

Les, 65, and Cheryl, 31, both suffered setbacks and delays over the past nine months, but Cheryl finally won the day she fought for, with muscle and heart.

Living with failing kidneys

Les suffered from kidney problems for much of his adult life because of hypertension. He estimates that he has passed more than 400 painful kidney stones, one of which Cheryl popped in a jar and took to her class for "show and tell" when she was a fifth-grader.

His kidneys failed completely in 1996, but he was able to receive a kidney from a cadaver in 1997, which gave Les what he remembers as "the best four years of my life."

Then, near the end of 2001, the donated kidney began to fail; on Aug. 12, 2002, Les began thrice-weekly dialysis treatments at UCLA .

In spite of his health problems, Les was able to support the family with an underground tank removal business that he runs out of Calabasas.

His wife, Roberta, 61, has been a homemaker ever since the two married in 1960 and settled in Torrance. Cheryl was the third of three children born to the Rosenthals.

"I was an accident,"Cheryl said, during an interview last winter.

"Best accident we ever had," Les countered.

Cheryl's siblings, Michelle Rosenthal, 36, of Westlake Village and Michael Rosenthal, 38, of Buena Park also volunteered to be donors, but neither was a match.

"Only 'the mistake' was a match," Michael joked.

The race to lose

Les and Roberta stressed to Cheryl that she should not feel pressure to give up a kidney.

"I said, 'We won't think any more or less of you if you don't,' " Roberta recalled.

But Cheryl was determined. After a series of tests in September 2002 confirmed that she could be a donor if she would lose weight, Cheryl hired Westlake Village fitness trainer Geri Arnais to help her.

Arnais designed a 1,200-calorie-a-day high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet for Cheryl, along with an exercise program that included 45 minutes of cardiovascular work six times a week and weight training three to four times a week.

Cheryl works in Torrance as a kindergarten teacher, so many days included a two-hour commute to and from Westlake Village followed by at least an hour at the gym.

There were days she felt like skipping her workout, but one look at her dad sent her off to the gym.

One week before surgery, Cheryl relaxed with her parents in their den. Roberta sat by the fireplace mantle and Les sat in an easy chair watching TV coverage of the blackout on the East Coast.

Sitting on the couch behind them, Cheryl confessed, "I'm scared."

Les was calm because, "I've been through this before," he said. "I'm worried about her," he said, glancing at Cheryl.

She prepared herself psychologically by taking a July trip to Jamaica, then drove to Torrance for a summertime visit with her former students in an outdoor park.

Then, she rounded out the presurgery weekend by hitting all of her favorite spots with her girlfriends and "eating everything in sight," she said.

The day arrives

The Rosenthals arrived early at the UCLA Medical Center on Wednesday. Cheryl's surgery was scheduled for 10:30 a.m.; Les' surgery in an adjoining operating room would begin at 12:30 p.m. The entire overlapping procedure would take about six hours.

Dressed in sweat pants and a T-shirt emblazoned with Cheryl's alma mater, Chico State University, Les lowered himself onto a chair and waited.

Cheryl, who was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, paced, then sat, then paced. Roberta stood, her eyes still rimmed with pink from crying on and off all night.

Before long, a nurse in blue scrubs arrived to escort Cheryl back to pre-op, the area where she would be prepared for surgery.

Cheryl stood and turned to take one more look at her dad.

Their eyes locked, and then the tears came as Dad and daughter came together in a fierce hug.

"I love you, Dad," Cheryl sobbed into her father's shoulder.

Les' voice cracked as he told his youngest daughter:

"You are so brave. You are my hero."

It didn't take long for Cheryl to regain her composure.

After she entered the brightly lighted pre-op area, a nurse guided her to the first in a long row of gurneys separated by curtains.

Cheryl changed into a hospital gown and white support stockings to help her circulation after surgery, then lay on the gurney as the nurse tucked white blankets around her.

"I need some drugs," Cheryl wailed.

As the nurses rubbed and patted her arm in search of a vein, Cheryl turned her head on the pillow, bit her index finger and screwed up her face.

"I want to go back to Jamaica!" she moaned.

Two nurses worked on one arm as Cheryl flexed the other for another nurse.

"Did you see my guns?" she said, nodding at her toned bicep.

After nurses started the IV, Cheryl was wheeled out of the pre-op area, which caused tears to spring into Roberta's eyes.

"Mom! Don't be scared," Cheryl called from the retreating gurney. "Chill out, Girlfriend!"

Less than 30 minutes later, Cheryl was completely anesthetized. Four hours later, she was out of surgery.

Schulam was aware of all that Cheryl had gone through to get to this day, so he was happy the surgery went smoothly.

"She's just a good-hearted person," he said. "These are the ones you pray that everything goes well."

Roberta, Michael, Michelle and a few friends sat in the waiting room, all eyes riveting to every person who walked around the corner in a white jacket.

Finally, Schulam entered and the entire family clustered around him. Roberta's eyes filled with tears again as he assured them that Cheryl was fine.

Then, they sat down to wait for about two more hours for Les' surgeon, Albin Gritsch, to come around the corner.

Around 5 p.m., Gritsch entered the waiting room dressed in scrubs and a white coat and a smile. The kidney had been successfully implanted and Les was producing urine with it, which looks like liquid gold to transplant surgeons.

Michael was the first to arrive in Cheryl's room to give her the news with the elegance that only a sibling can manage.

After pumping a victorious fist in the air at the foot of her bed, he said: "Cheryl! Dad's peeing with your kidney!"

After his surgery, Roberta ventured down to the recovery room for a quick visit with Les.

Les lay on the gurney, his eyes still clouded with sleep, his voice rasping from the anesthesia tube just removed from his throat.

Roberta leaned over her husband of 43 years and stroked his hair, then his hand, which was still taped with IV needles.

"I want you to try and relax. You're going to be down here a couple more hours," she said.

"How's Cheryl?" he rasped.

She assured him she was fine, but he persisted.

"Are you telling me the truth? Cheryl's OK?"

A few hours later, Les was wheeled up to a room just a few doors down from Cheryl's, where both rested through the night.

The next morning, Cheryl lifted herself out of bed and rolled her IV down the hall to see her dad.

When she was a little girl, Les nicknamed Cheryl "Goofy," so he decided to nickname her kidney "Goofy" also. As Cheryl entered his room, she smiled and asked: "How's Goofy?"

Les was doing so well that he required little pain medication, but Les and Goofy will remain in the hospital for at least a week. Cheryl went home on Friday and says she feels fine.

On Thursday, Arnais went to visit the client who came to her so many months ago with a unique motive to lose weight.

The personal trainer presented Cheryl with a sterling silver heart etched with the words:

"None are so brave as those who love."

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