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THE GREATEST GIFT

When Dylan Carrow, 14, returned this year to the Waldorf Aurora School as an eighth-grader, some people didn't recognize him. Gone were the trademark long blond bangs, traded for a spiky crew cut. And then there was a growth spurt and a bit more weight.

But the most amazing change was an unseen one.

On July 19, Dylan received a kidney from his father, Bruce, at Pittsburgh Children's Hospital.

As his dad says: "New kidney. New hairdo. New man."

Dylan, who lives in Glenwood near the Kissing Bridge ski resort, was born with a chronic kidney condition. As a young child he was underweight, got sick a lot, was often cranky, appeared to have a suntan and had "funny-smelling" breath, reports his mother, Lisa.

But it wasn't until Dylan was 2 1/2 , and recovering from injuries suffered in a car accident, that doctors diagnosed him with chronic renal failure, meaning his kidneys were improperly formed.

In this family's positive way of viewing things, they now regard the traffic accident -- their car was broadsided when another driver ran a stop sign -- as a well-disguised blessing.

For many years, Dylan was stable, helped by medication and a special diet (mostly chicken, fruit and vegetables) that didn't overtax his weakened kidneys. When he hit puberty, though, his kidneys rapidly worsened and were functioning so poorly that the family had to make a choice between dialysis and a transplant, which is what doctors recommended.

"With dialysis, you feel better for a couple days and then you start dropping off again," said Dylan, who preferred the prospect of a transplant.

When it was determined that his father was a good match, surgery was quickly scheduled. "I was this color the night before," said Dylan, pointing to a shade of yellow on a picture.

In Pittsburgh, a highly regarded transplant center, they met kids and adults from around the world, including a Romanian boy there for a small bowel transplant and another from Greece who had a liver transplant.

"I thought it was nice to meet new people," said Dylan, whose engaging smile is freely given.

"But I didn't realize how serious everything was until I saw the place where I'd be spending two weeks."

Dylan emerged from the 4 1/2 -hour operation with a 6-inch scar and a kidney that functioned normally within 12 hours; his own kidneys were left in place and will atrophy over time.

He doesn't remember much of what happened right after the surgery. "I was sort of out of it," he said. "I know there were doctors all around and I felt someone rubbing my feet and I remember saying, 'Gramma'?"

The hardest time came later.

"I was really sore," he said, demonstrating how he walked crouched over because his skin was so tight around the scar. "I had all these tubes and I couldn't move. The bed got uncomfortable and I'd move to a chair and that was uncomfortable."

Besides that, the food was "disgusting."

"I ordered French fries and they were these dried-up little chips, without salt," said Dylan.

So how is life different now?

Well, for one, Dylan doesn't get as tired as he once did, he said. He can't roughhouse with his brother, Skylr, 9, or his sister, Haley, 12, and it's unlikely that he'll ever play contact sports because he can't risk injuring his only kidney. "I wanna play soccer, but I know I can't," he said.

That's frustrating. So is the thought of missing snowboarding. "I'm a pretty good snowboarder, but if you get out there, someone else could just hit you."

He has gotten mixed messages about sports, he said.

"Doctors have all said something different: one said no, another one said I could if I was careful, and a third said he would do it," Dylan said.

A two-inch-thick loose-leaf folder marked "Dylan" holds instructions about every aspect of life as a transplant recipient. He continues to eat a healthy diet, partly to restrict the potassium and phosphorus levels so his kidney isn't overloaded. His favorite, occasional, treat is chocolate.

Dylan is responsible for taking his own medication, which starts at 6 a.m. each day.

"I set my watch for 9 to remind me to take the next ones," he said, holding up one of several bottles that hold the necessary capsules. Among other things, the medication fights the body's tendency to reject the new organ; it helps prevent pneumonia; it protects his stomach lining.

Because he can't be as active in sports as he'd like, Dylan spends time making things. He built a tree fort; he fiddles with electronic equipment, and he wears a hemp and bead necklace that he made.

When asked what he has learned from this life-and-death experience, Dylan thought a while and then said: "I know how to say 'look at me' in Greek."

On a more profound level, he knows now that others have far more serious problems -- he saw a West Virginia boy who was badly burned in a lawn mower accident and another who had had two transplants within one year.

Since the operation, he has become more lighthearted, his mother said.

"My friends noticed that I'm funnier," he adds.

The family's attitude is that they are lucky. Lucky to be alive at a time when technology and the skill of medical personnel allows a father to donate a kidney to his son.

Grateful for family and friends, who sent numerous surprise packages to the hospital.

"Except," said Dylan, "that I had to write a lot of thank-you cards."

Though Dylan is low-key about all that has happened, his father beams when he's asked for a reaction: "I'm the happiest guy alive."

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