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Cottage Grove man fighting for a second chance

Cottage Grove resident Jim Gorbunow is waiting for a second kidney transplant but isn't letting his prognosis slow him down from living life to the fullest. (Submitted photo)

Jim Gorbunow is in a literal fight for his life.

Living as a Type I diabetic for nearly his entire life, the Cottage Grove resident is no stranger to illness. However, a recent discovery that his kidney, which he received in 2000, is only working at 25 percent has him in dire search for a new one. While he waits for the second time on a donor list, Gorbunow, who has faced his own mortality once before, said he is determined to live each day to the fullest.

Gorbunow was just a 6-year-old kid growing up in Minneapolis when his parents noticed he wasn't a very big eater. Unlike most young boys, he was much thinner and wasn't as active. A trip to the hospital revealed Gorbunow had Type I diabetes, a chronic, lifelong disease that affects roughly 15,000 children each year in the United States.

For the next 23 years, he managed to keep the disease under control with insulin and watching his sugar intake. But in 2000, he started having difficulty breathing at night.

"I would lay down at night and there would be this real heavy feeling on my chest like someone was pushing down on me," he described. "I thought maybe this will pass, but it started getting worse."

Gorbunow began rapidly putting on weight and wasn't sleeping through the night. He worried it might be a heart condition.

"It wasn't my heart," he said after visiting his primary physician. "It was my kidneys. They are the blood's filtration system and and they weren't doing their job. I was storing the toxins instead of getting rid of them. My body was turning septic."

With his 30th birthday just around the corner, Gorbunow said he never envisioned spending the remaining weeks of his 20s in the hospital in renal failure. He spent several months on dialysis while he waited for a kidney transplant.

"My situation was pretty bad," he remembered. "I didn't have any kidney function at all. But that changed in December 2000."

Gorbunow got the call just a few weeks before Christmas that not only had a donor come through with a kidney but a pancreas was available as well. In medical jargon, a simultaneous kidney-pancreas transplant is a common procedure related to patients who have Type I diabetes. This procedure treats both renal failure and diabetes because the new organs replace the function of the failed organs.

The kidney was donated from a living donor, a close friend of Gorbunow's, and the pancreas came from a deceased donor.

"Of course there were a whole range of emotions going into that surgery," he said and remembered asking his doctor if there was a chance for a negative outcome. "My doctor laughed and said, 'Nothing bad will happen on my watch.'"

The transplant was successful, but in 2006 he underwent the scalpel yet again for a new pancreas after a blood clot "choked off" the organ.

According to the University of Minnesota Medical Center, where Gorbunow had his procedures, kidney transplants are effective roughly 85 percent of the time and kidneys last between 10-15 years.

With year 14 for Gorbunow's kidney coming up, he said he can feel it wearing out.

"I go in once a month for lab draws and blood tests, and I'm on medication to keep my creatinine levels in check," he said. "(Doctors) were adjusting and readjusting a lot but it's not enough anymore. The kidney is shutting down."

Renal failure consists of five stages during which the kidney starts to shut down, with the fifth being the end of kidney life. Gorbunow is in the fourth stage. His donated kidney is working at roughly 25 percent, 26 percent on a good day, he said.

While he waits yet again on a donor list, Gorbunow is not taking anything for granted.

From meeting players from the Minnesota Vikings and working on his prized 1965 Mercury Comet to spending time with his wife of eight years, Jennie, and hanging out with friends and family, Gorbunow said despite his predicament, it's imperative to stay positive.

"My wife is behind me 100 million percent, she's a huge support," he said. "I've got an outstanding support system of friends, family members and coworkers. It definitely keeps moral up knowing I have that much push behind me."

When he isn't moving heavy equipment around at work 40 hours a week, he's attending benefits planned in his honor and sharing his story of hope. Recently, a carwash with a 1950s pin-up style theme in St. Paul Park raised more than $2,000.

Later this month on Sept. 20, the Gorbunow's are hosting another fundraiser at the Knights of Columbus in Bloomington which will feature a cover band, silent auction and door prizes.

While Gorbunow is not in dialysis yet, he said it is in the future if his kidney continues to decline. Despite having the prognosis he does, he continues to stay positive and advocates for organ donation.

"I've got too much to live for," he said. "Life is way too short as it is and if you can give life, that's the best gift you can give. Next time you renew your license, check the box to become an organ donor. If you have the power to save someone's life, why not do it? Be somebody's hero."

For more information about upcoming fundraisers or to donate to his cause, visit the Jim Gorbunow's Transplant Page on Facebook or by searching for Jim Gorbunow on