Sayreville resident Gina Bergstrom, 53, and her mother Jennie Montanino, 69, of West Palm Beach, Florida, have a special bond.

After Bergstrom was diagnosed with kidney failure in 2019 and discovered she would need a kidney transplant, Montanino selflessly donated one of her kidneys to save her daughter’s life.

One night in 2006, Bergstrom sat up in bed having trouble breathing. She immediately knew something wasn’t right and went to the ER where she was diagnosed with high blood pressure that was causing her kidneys to fail. Her kidney function was at only 12%.

At the time, Bergstrom was overweight and struggled to walk from the kitchen to the bathroom without getting out of breath. But with medication, diet and exercise she was able to get her blood pressure under control and her kidney function rose to 25%.

Then one day in early 2019 she woke up again with breathing problems and struggled to walk just a few feet. That’s when Bergstrom learned she was in kidney failure, would need to go on dialysis, and doctors at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) in New Brunswick told her she’d need a kidney transplant.

But first, she would need to lose at least 60 pounds to become eligible for a place on the organ transplant list.

It was a moment of clarity for Bergstrom, who had struggled with excess weight for many years.

Bergstrom worked hard to lose the 60 pounds, and by December 2019 she had undergone a successful kidney transplant performed by the RWJUH team of Dr. Ronald Pelletier, director of Transplantation, and Dr. Advaith Bongu, transplant surgeon.

After the surgery, Bergstrom’s weight once again became a concern since obesity can be associated with increased risk of complications after transplant. RWJUH created a unique collaboration between its transplant and bariatric surgery programs. The partnership is designed to benefit high-risk patients who would otherwise not be transplant candidates or those like Bergstrom who have regained weight post-transplant due to medications.

Bergstrom was referred to Dr. Ragui Sadek, director of Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery at RWJUH, who performed a successful gastric sleeve procedure in January 2021. Her weight is down to 121 pounds from 260 pounds and Bergstrom now walks between 15,000-30,000 a day.

No longer restricted by dialysis or her weight, Bergstrom is spending more time with her family, especially her two nephews, and enjoying going out with friends and traveling.

Bergstrom was fortunate to have her mom match as a living donor. Currently, more than 90,000 people are on the national kidney transplant wait list and the average wait time for a deceased-donor kidney transplant in New Jersey runs about seven years.

“I feel very lucky to have been on dialysis for such a short time,” Bergstrom said. “It’s been very meaningful to my mom and my family that they were able to help.”

* This information was provided by R&J Strategic Communications.

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