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Reaping the love of angels

Shirley Says

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POSTED: June 15, 2011 10:35 a.m.
Photo by Carolyn Wilson Williams/

The McCray family, including Riley, left, Falyn, Bruce, Renee and Stephen.

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How do you know if it is real love? People often say they love you, but don’t really mean it.
As Tim McGraw might say, “Real love means you’d give your last breath to your wife, take a bullet for your kids, lay your life down for your country or give a kidney to a friend.”
Perhaps God gave us two kidneys so we would have one to share. I think a living donation is so far removed from the mind set of some they can’t quite wrap their mind around it.
Renee McCray and Shawn Hartzell know the meaning of sharing – and real love. They were unexpected angels sent at the perfect time to help save a life. Renee donated a kidney to her father-in-law Bruce McCray, and Shawn donated one to his friend Chris Barr.
In his early 20s, Bruce, who is now 56, was diagnosed with the genetic polycystic kidney disease (PKD). Children have a 50 percent chance of inheriting it from a parent. His mother died from complications associated with that disease.
Bruce’s disease progressed rapidly – he needed a new kidney. Most of his living relatives were diagnosed with PKD, preventing them from being a donor. A close friend was tested for a match, but was not the correct blood type.
“Bruce is O positive, a universal donor, but can only receive donations from other ‘O-type’ people,” Renee explained. “Other blood types are not compatible. I knew there was a possibility I could be a match as we are both O-positive blood type.”
On Jan. 12, Bruce began dialysis treatments. Prior to dialysis, he completed hemodialysis at home five days a week. Each session lasted nearly four hours. Bruce owns a Freight Forwarding business in Savannah and is used to hard work. As his disease worsened he was easily exhausted and missed a lot of work.
He hired Renee to help with his workload, especially since he knew he’d be on medical leave if he ever received a transplant. Ironically, no one expected his back-up person to eventually become his donor.
Then on March 8, Bruce was given a healthy kidney and a new lease on life.
“I cannot begin to express my gratitude,” he said. “It took a lot of courage for Renee to donate her kidney to me. Since the surgery, my life has returned to normal. I will be forever grateful.”
Though Renee had serious concerns involving her husband Stephen and daughter Falyn, she did not waver in her decision. She said the scariest thing was knowing once she donated a kidney, she would be giving away her power to help her husband or daughter if they developed the disease.
“Generally speaking, most people with PKD have high blood pressure and develop cysts by the time they reach 30,” she said.
To ease Renee’s mind, Stephen got an ultrasound to check for cysts. There were none, and his blood pressure remains normal. The diagnosis does not mean he will never develop the disease. He currently shows no signs. And if he has not inherited the disease, Falyn’s chances of having PKD are lowered.
Before the surgery, Renee thought about Bruce’s 11-year-old daughter, Riley.
“She could miss out on her daddy walking her down the aisle one day,” she said. “A lot of things about my wedding day are blurred, but I’ll always remember holding my dad’s arm while he escorted me. Every daughter needs her father on her most important day.”
When Renee’s dad, Don Olliff, met the 5-year-old Bruce, he was a teenager. Don said if he could have seen into the future, he would have told young Bruce, “One day, I’m going to have a little girl and she’s going to give you a kidney 50 years from now.”
When Stephen talked about his wife’s sacrifice, his voice was filled with emotion.
“I couldn’t have a better wife. She was a great wife before she did this,” he said. “As a child, you feel like your daddy is your hero. But Renee saved my daddy’s life – she’s my hero.”
As Chris knows, heroes are angels in disguise.
In 1998, 18-year-old Chris was diagnosed with chronic renal failure. One kidney did not function efficiently, and the other was atrophic. It did not grow to compensate for the deficient kidney, possibly a birth defect.
Chris was a college freshman at Georgia Southern University when he became aware he had a problem. Having played soccer his entire life, the game and its physical demands were nothing new. After a night playing with his fraternity team, he awoke with sharp pains.
“My big toe was swollen and I had sharp pains when I tried to walk,” he said. “Later in the week, I was diagnosed with gout. This was the first indication something was wrong, and I was given medication to relieve the pain.”
Future blood tests revealed critical renal values were five times above normal. One kidney was working less than 20 percent. After numerous visits to Johns Hopkins University for extensive testing, he knew he was in trouble. Medicine was not going to fix this.
Despite his serious health issue, Chris was able to attend college and work three jobs. But without pain medication, he wouldn’t have been able to function. His future depended on a kidney transplant, and no one knew how it would happen. They were praying for a miracle.
It was nearly 10 years before Chris had the life-changing transplant. Was it fate, destiny or timing that aligned the stars in his favor? I believe timing is everything…it could work for or against you. Either way, it changes your life dramatically.
While in college, Chris worked in his dad’s business, which involved a lot of travel. When Chris boarded a jet in Savannah for a business meeting in Chicago, little did he know the man sitting beside him was an angel. During the entire flight they never spoke, yet Chris’ life was destined to be changed by the stranger.
In time, Chris and Shawn realized they worked for the same company and quickly became close friends.
On Feb. 6, 2006, at the Medical College of Georgia, Chris got one of Shawn’s kidneys. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for Shawn for putting his life on the line – he never hesitated to help,” Chris said.
Chris’ family was tested for a possible match, but no one was an acceptable candidate. His then-girlfriend now-wife Rosanne was tested. Though she had the same blood type, she was never considered because she was just 17 years old at the time.
At their wedding reception, Chris said he raised his glass high and toasted his good friend Shawn,
“Without you I wouldn’t be here today,” Chris recalled.
After Chris’ surgery, his lifestyle changed dramatically. For the rest of his life, he must take 10-12 pills daily, anti-rejection medication and immunosuppressants. He must also be acutely aware of his diet, so as not to put additional strain on his new kidney.
 “Though Chris was sick before his transplant, you would never have known. He never missed doing things with his family,” Andrea Gaustad, Chris’ sister, said.
“It was a blessing when our friend volunteered to donate a kidney. Seriously, who just offers to give up a body part? Shawn is our angel. Our lives are forever intertwined. My brother is now healthy and enjoying life to it’s fullest with his wife and daughter.”
Andrea noted the difference in her brother since the surgery.
 “The difference I’ve seen in my brother since the surgery is like day and night,” she said. “Saying goodbye when he was on his way to surgery was the scariest thing. I will never forget that day, and I can never thank Shawn enough for allowing my family and me to spend the rest our days with my big brother.”
On Sunday, June 19, Chris will receive his first Father’s Day card from his daughter McAllister Lillie. She had her first birthday on Saturday.
“She’s my pride and joy and the reason I get out of bed early in the morning, literally and figuratively,” Chris said.
With an angel by your side you can get through any crisis.


Hiers was born and raised in Richmond Hill. She can be reached at shirleyhiers@comcast.net.

 

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