An extra-special Christmas

Kidney transplant in September gives Darrell Thurnbeck new lease on life


Darrell Thurnbeck with his daughter, Carla. The Thurnbecks are avid skiers at Wild Mountain where Darrell also works the ski patrol. (Photo by Cliff Buchan)
Darrell Thurnbeck with his daughter, Carla. The Thurnbecks are avid skiers at Wild Mountain where Darrell also works the ski patrol. (Photo by Cliff Buchan)

Cliff Buchan
Staff Writer

Christmas is a time for family and giving and no one knows that better than Darrell Thurnbeck.

When the Thurnbeck family gathers this holiday season it will be more than special as the Columbus man has a new lease on life, thanks to one special gift from a daughter, Carla Thurnbeck Nordenstrom.

On Sept. 11 Thurnbeck, 69, received the gift of life from his daughter when she donated a kidney to help save her father’s life.

“I’m much more than thankful,” Thurnbeck said this week.

“It was definitely a gift,” his daughter said. “Anyone in our family would have done it.”

All three Thurnbeck siblings figured into the planning as potential donors. Carla’s older brother and sister, Jake, 43, and Serese Honebrink, 45, were also possible kidney donors during the extensive planning and testing this spring and summer.

When it came time to select a donor, Jake was ruled out because it would have curtailed his summer construction work.

With sisters Carla and Serese identical matches to donate a kidney, Carla was selected by a coin flip by the transplant coordinators at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis.

Family Well Known

The Thurnbeck family is well known in the Forest Lake area. Darrell Thurnbeck has worked the family farm in Columbus since 1968 when he returned home from the military and college.

In the early 1970s he took over operation of the Thurnbeck Farms turkey raising enterprise from his father, George, who started raising turkeys in 1930.

The Thurnbeck connection to the Columbus farm dates to 1893.

Darrell Thurnbeck, a 1961 graduate of Forest Lake High School, has been involved with the farming operation for close to 50 years. Some 150,000 turkeys are produced for market each year on the farm.

Medical History

Darrell Thurnbeck’s need for a new kidney this year was the culmination of a long-running health issue, he said. He was in his early 40s when medical testing determined his kidneys were slowly deteriorating. His kidneys were functioning at 50 percent, he said. He was also determined borderline diabetic in his early 40s.

“They [doctors] didn’t know what caused it but it wasn’t from diabetes,” Thurnbeck said. He continued to monitor his health and it wasn’t until spring of 2011 when the functioning levels of the kidneys continued to worsen.

It was nine months ago when doctors said his kidney function had declined to 16-18 percent and it was time for a major decision. Blood tests for creatinine revealed elevated levels indicating impaired kidney function. Creatinine is a chemical waste molecule generated from muscle metabolism and is produced by creatine. Kidneys that function properly filter and dispose most of it through urine.

Darrell Thurnbeck and daughter Carla at the Hennepin County Medical Center where his kidney transplant took place in September. (Photo submitted)
Darrell Thurnbeck and daughter Carla at the Hennepin County Medical Center where his kidney transplant took place in September. (Photo submitted)

He was placed on the preliminary transplant list at HCMC and told it could take six to seven years to secure a donor through the national transplant program.

That’s when the family got involved.

Family Decision

In March the Thurnbeck family gathered to discuss Darrell’s situation. “I was going to put it off for a while,” he said. He had not reached the point where kidney dialysis was necessary and he was comfortable in not moving ahead with immediate plans for a transplant.

But family members would have nothing of it. His wife, Bonnie, also urged her husband to take action now.

Extensive testing at HCMC determined that both Serese and Carla had the necessary antigens needed to stimulate the production of antibodies needed by the immune system to neutralize foreign objects like bacteria, viruses and infections.

Once the decision was made, Carla and her husband, Dale, began their internal family discussion that involved their daughter, Kylie, 7. “She was scared,” Carla said of Kylie’s reaction to a major surgery for mom.

As part of her medical preparation, Carla said extra measures were taken to determine that she did not inherit the kidney problem that her father had encountered when he was in his early 40s. Now 41, Carla said she was reassured when no genetic link could be determined.

By late summer, they were ready. On Sept. 11 father and daughter were rolled into separate operating rooms. Laparoscopy surgery removed one of Carla’s healthy kidneys and within minutes it was transplanted into her father.

Smooth Process

“I can’t say enough for HCMC,” Carla said. “They have a wonderful program.”

The four-hour surgery resulted in both daughter and father starting their recovery the next morning. There was some friendly competition as to who would be up and walking first.

“I was awake really early,” Carla said. “I just couldn’t sleep. You have to get up to feel better.”

By the time Darrell Thurnbeck was up and walking, Carla had beat dad to the task.


The transplant required time off for Carla, an adaptive physical education and regular PE teacher at the North Campus of White Bear Lake High School. Her sister, Serese, is also a PE teacher, working at St. Croix Prep Charter School in Stillwater.

Both were outstanding athletes in high school here and spent 10 years as co-coaches of the North St. Paul varsity gymnastics team.

Darrell Thurnbeck continues to get good medical reports. He is constantly watching his diet and is on a series of anti-rejection drugs that he will need for the rest of his life.

He is now three-months plus removed from his surgery. His weight jumped from 160 pounds to 175 pounds following the surgery, but he has since shed 10 pounds.

On Friday, Dec. 14 he made his return to Wild Mountain Ski Resort near Taylors Falls where he hit the slopes for the first time in nearly a year. He is a regular skier at Wild Mountain and also works the ski patrol there every Thursday.

“I didn’t want to miss out on the skiing season,” he said.

It’s just one of the small gifts that has come Darrell Thurnbeck’s way this Christmas season.