Her plans were unexpectedly disrupted when her doctor told her that her kidneys were not functioning properly after a college physical. She was diagnosed with lupus nephritis, a painful condition resulting from inflammation of the kidney caused by lupus.
Soon after her diagnosis, she was advised she would eventually need to be on dialysis or get a kidney transplant. The 18-year-old Jill suddenly pondered her own mortality.
But Jill chose to roll with the punches leading up to her life-saving kidney transplant from an anonymous donor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in 2014. Up until then — when her kidney function fell to about 7 percent — Jill managed to stay positive and hopeful she could beat lupus with the support of her husband of nearly 40 years, Fred Sauceman.
The local couple recently released their book, “Chased by the Wolf: A Life With Lupus and the Kidney Transplant That Saved It,” which tells the story of Jill’s struggle with lupus and their marriage.
“Lupus is the Latin word for ‘wolf,’ Jill said. “All my life, I’ve been chased by this wolf that has been trying to get me, but I’m not going to let it get me.”
The book, according to the couple, has a strong message about the need for organ donors to save people like Jill. It’s also a story about perseverance and the importance of having strong, supportive bonds with those you love.
Fred was a source of strength for Jill before her transplant, despite being advised not to marry her in 1978 by a family doctor and his mom, who lost her husband and Fred’s father years before from a brain tumor.
Fred said his mother was afraid that he, too, would experience the same grief she did from his passing. This was a loss Fred said his mother “never truly recovered from.”
Fred, who now serves as senior writer and associate professor of ETSU Appalachian Studies, a Johnson City Press/Kingsport Times News food columnist and news director of WETS-FM, chose to ignore their advice and stand by Jill.
“There have been some tough times; there were some moments of desperation,” Fred said. “People often let very minor hardships destroy their relationships, but the hardships we’ve encountered over our years together have done nothing but strengthen the relationship.”
“I had several serious relationships, but then when it came down to it — when I would talk about my health and the fact that I would not be able to have my own child — they didn’t really say, ‘Goodbye,’ but I suddenly wouldn’t hear from them,” Jill said. “He’s the only one that stuck with me.”
When Jill was put on a waiting list to get the kidney transplant she so desperately needed, the couple tried to stay optimistic. Jill knew many people in need of transplants often wait years and sometimes don’t qualify at all.
From 2008 until 2014, her kidneys were beginning to fail, but she continued to pray.
“One of the worst parts of the ordeal was waiting on a kidney transplant,” Jill said. “I was worried that, because I had lupus, it would make them disqualify me because it attacks your own body. It could possibly attack a foreign body and you could lose the kidney quicker.”
Since her transplant, Jill said she’s been able to reclaim her life. She is now able to enjoy more foods and has the energy to travel the world and enjoy herself with her husband.
“I just wish I could’ve been a little younger,” she laughed. “But it’s just fantastic to be able to do some things that I wasn’t able to do before, or was afraid to do when I was in renal failure.”
Jill, now retired, didn’t end up working in nursing, but she worked in public health, accounting and bookkeeping until her retirement. Still, Fred said Jill’s story can inspire others to meet life’s challenges head-on.
“No matter how bleak a situation seems, there may be a way out of it if you don’t shut down and give up,” Fred said. “Keep striving, keep at it.”
“Chased by the Wolf” can be found online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and through Mercer University Press. The Saucemans expect the book to be available in bookstores by Sept. 4. All proceeds from the book go toward helping patients of the Vanderbilt Kidney Transplant Program.