Dakota Watson, a 16-year-old Camas sophomore, stood in front of his high school with a friend after the last bell had rung and watched his Camas High peers swarming toward the buses and parking lot.
“I may get a kidney, but I highly doubt it,” Dakota told his friend. It had been a day filled with anticipation and waiting for his mother to call him with the good news — that it was his turn to receive a transplant.
At that moment, Dakota’s phone rang. It was his mom, Samantha Watson.
“I can see you, I’m over here,” Samantha told her son. “Get in the car. We have to be at Doernbecher in an hour.”
Dakota remembers sprinting to his family’s car across the parking lot, only to stop to let his grandmother, Marie Watson, a bus driver for Camas, know that he was on his way.
“I’m leaving, I’m getting a kidney,” Dakota screamed to her.
As he ran, he realized that a few other students, who had just overheard his announcement, were clapping and cheering for him.
Finally, the day he’d dreamed about for so long had arrived. He was ready.
Dakota’s parents, Samantha and Marty Watson, were beyond ready. The couple had learned that their son would need a kidney transplant when Dakota was only 1 day old.
Born without a rectum and shortly after diagnosed with VATER syndrome, a set of birth defects that often occur together in five different areas of the body, including the vertebra, anus, trachea, esophagus and renal, Dakota’s doctors believed he would need a kidney transplant before his first birthday to survive.
Renal means kidneys, Dakota explains: “And that’s where my kidney disease came from.”
Until Dakota turned 2 years old, the doctors thought he was born with only one kidney. Then he grew big enough for his second kidney to be found — it was tucked behind the other kidney.
“We were told that he would probably never walk right, or that he wouldn’t walk until he was 2, but he walked at 15 months,” Samantha said.
Doctors revised their projections: Dakota would need a transplant by age 1. Then they said, “by 5,” and finally, “by age 10.”
But Dakota made it to age 16.
On Tuesday, Dec. 12, Samantha got the call saying Dakota’s name was at the top of the list. The only way to get bumped would be if another person on the list needed a double organ transplant.
Dakota said he thought his mother was joking when she initially told him he was first on the list, but soon realized she wasn’t.
The next day, Dakota went to school and waited to hear if he was getting a kidney. Around 2:15 p.m., the hospital called him in for testing and prep.
Finally, at 2 a.m. on Dec. 14, Dakota was on his way to the operating room.
“It was such a huge relief,” Samantha said. “I thought it would be a lot more emotional for his dad and I, when we watched him go into surgery, but it was so much excitement. Dakota was giving us two thumbs up like, ‘I’m so ready for this.'”
Dakota and the transplant surgeon cracked jokes in the operating room right before he was put under the anesthesia.
“I was really relaxed, and if I can compliment Dr. Kayvan Roayaie on anything, it’s that he really takes the time to get to know you before he cuts into you and he answered all the questions that he could,” Dakota said.
The new kidney would allow Dakota a higher quality of life, with less fatigue and nausea and fewer hospital visits.
When Dakota reached the eighth grade, he experienced a huge decline in his health.
He was hospitalized once a month during his eighth grade year for chronic kidney infections.
It wasn’t until July of 2017 that Dakota’s condition was able to be listed for a kidney transplant.
The Watsons had avoided putting Dakota through dialysis for 16 years, but knew after a November appointment with his nephrologist, Dr. Randall D. Jenkins, that dialysis was coming unless Dakota received a transplant within the next two months.
“I kind of expected that we would start dialysis, because they kept saying that we may have to start next month and then next and then all of a sudden (Dakota) would have appointments twice in one month,” Samantha said.
Luckily, they didn’t have to.
During Dakota’s six-and-a-half hour surgery, the transplanted kidney, which usually takes 24 to 48 hours to start waking up, began to make urine while the doctors were still attaching it.
“They had to clamp the ureter off to the kidney because it was already making urine and trying to urinate inside of his abdomen,” Samantha said. “Dr. Roayaie took photos during the transplant and it’s amazing to see what they can do … To see the kidney in him and it’s white or purple-white, and then the next picture it’s being attached to his body and it’s starting to get pink, and then the third picture it is pink and you can see the ureter swollen with urine.”
When Dakota woke up after surgery, his body was sending signals for sensations he wasn’t used to.
Dakota, who barely could hold any food down before surgery and had been reduced to drinking nutritional drinks, was starving. And his hands and feet, which used to always be cold, were warm.”
“I’m not used to having this much body heat,” Dakota said. “When I came out of surgery, my feet and hands felt weird because they were warm.”
Since the surgery, Dakota has gained 20 pounds and is able to indulge in a plethora of new foods he couldn’t eat before. A few of his favorites, so far, are yogurt and spicy food.
“It’s the little things, like warm hands and feet, that mean so much,” Samantha said.
The family also got excited for the amount and quality of urine that Dakota immediately produced.
“My kidney produced eight liters of urine in the first eight hours after surgery,” Dakota said. “My kidney was like, ‘oh, look at that, look at all that toxic stuff, let’s get it out of there.'”
When the kidneys start to fail, they quit producing urine, so it was exciting for the family to see their teenager starting to heal.
“Before surgery we would see how little urine output Dakota had and that it was dropping way low and the little bit he did have was really concentrated,” Samantha said.
Dakota has done amazing since the surgery, Samantha added. One of the doctors at Doernbecher called Dakota “the poster child for kidney transplants” because of his quick recovery.
Right now, Dakota is in his recovery phase. He takes 34 medications a day to keep his body from rejecting the kidney and can’t have visitors inside his home because they might bring illness inside and his immune system is compromised.
Dakota is looking forward to the day he’s able to return to school.
“I know that’s weird,” he said. “A lot of kids and even my friends say that they hate school, but I’m like, don’t take it for granted because when you’re gone for a long time, in isolation from the rest of the world because you can’t get a flu bug, you start to miss school and the people there.”
“Heck, I’m even starting to miss the workload that kept me busy,” Dakota added.
Outside of school, Dakota participates in 4-H and has about 50 rabbits that he raises and shows at the Skamania County Fair.
Dakota has been a known competitor at the fair since he was in the second grade, but last year he had to leave early and be taken to the emergency room for a kidney infection.
He said he’s excited to be able to go again this August and show his bunnies.
Dakota’s sisters, Hannah Watson, 13, and Laila Watson, 5, also participate in the fair.
Hannah shows goats and Laila has taken an interest in chickens.
Right now, Dakota isn’t able to go out to his rabbits because of his immune system.
But, he is just as knowledgeable about rabbits as he is music, and he can spend some time with his new five-string bass guitar.
Dakota is a self-taught musician and can play the bass, trumpet and tuba.
“I like how people express themselves through music,” he said. “You can learn a lot about a person through music, I think. I listen to a lot of music that my parents did when they were my age, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day, Nirvana and Weezer.”
Raising his rabbits and music are a way for him to get away from everyday stress.
“With music it’s a way of expressing myself and how I feel about everything that’s going on, and the rabbits are therapy,” he said.
Dakota looks toward the future and sees his transplant as a second chance at life.
His kidney came from a deceased donor, but the family doesn’t know anything about the donor except that they were younger than 30.
“The hospital can’t tell you anything about the donor, but we do have the opportunity to write a letter to them and so we are trying to do that” Samantha said.
“It’s one of the hardest things,” she added. “I didn’t think it’d be that hard, but it’s been a bigger challenge for me because I have to pick it up, look at it, jot some things down and then I have to put it down and walk away from it, because … how do you thank someone who lost somebody at Christmastime for saving your kid’s life?”
Samantha said she sometimes has mixed emotions about the transplant.
“Somebody else is just feeling a loss and we’re feeling this huge gain,” Samantha said. “And so I feel almost guilty, like, ‘Gosh should we feel this excited that he’s doing so well and that the match was so perfect?’ We are working on the letter and plan to include photos of Dakota that show this was a lifelong process for him and show him doing some things that he enjoys and that he is a kid who won’t take this kidney for granted.”
Samantha said her son has been waiting so long to get this kidney that he is doing an excellent job taking care of it and himself.
“A lot of times they find that teenagers are non-compliant when they get to that age. He’s been amazing with his medication,” she said.
Dakota says that his condition has taught him patience and that life is precious.
“Many people who get a kidney forget about the donor and how they passed away,” Dakota said.
“I have heard about people who receive their new kidney and then just do everything they’re not supposed to do. It’s like, ‘Why? Why would you do that? Why would you waste this second chance that you were given on life?'”
Dakota said he is looking forward to the small things he can do for now, like going on drives with his family and meeting up with friends he’s met through Northwest Kidney Kids, a nonprofit organization that organizes camps for children with kidney diseases.
Samantha and Marty are becoming more involved with the camp and Dakota hopes to be a camp counselor one day.
Seeing other people waste their second chance has taught him that he can’t waste his.
“I need to take care of myself, it’s all about self care,” he said. “I am going to honor my donor by taking care of myself.”