OXFORD — When Alta Jack found out her friend Kathy O’Neal’s kidneys were failing and that she would eventually need a transplant, she knew what she had to do.
She went out and got herself tested and, lo and behold, she was a near perfect match for O’Neal. As near perfect as one can get without being a blood relative, though some tell the Oxford residents that they look like sisters. Their friendship developed years ago when their sons — Owen O’Neal and Collin Jack, now 13 — became best friends in kindergarten.
“It was instant, man. (I thought) ‘I would do that for her,’” Jack said recently about donating her healthy organ to O’Neal. “The time came when she really needed it and I just didn’t have to second guess myself or anything.”
O’Neal found out 4 years ago she had chronic kidney disease through routine blood work. Even though the news was life changing, it wasn’t surprising. Her father, two aunts and a handful of cousins are all on dialysis, and her brother only has one kidney. She said recently the doctors aren’t sure what is causing chronic kidney disease in her family, but research is on-going.
She said it’s tough for her to find the words to thank Jack.
“It is still amazing to me that’s happening. Some days it doesn’t truly hit me that I am getting somebody else’s organ. It’s going to make my life so much better,” O’Neal said. “It’s just such a wonderful gift she’s giving me. … I am incredibly grateful.”
And the transplant surgery — scheduled for Tuesday, April 14, at Maine Medical Center in Portland — should improve O’Neal’s quality of life. Before starting in-home dialysis in December, O’Neal had to stop working at Maine Families Home Visiting program through Community Concepts in Paris 5 times a day to take care of herself. She said everyone there is supportive and her job will be waiting for her after her recovery.
Now she’s on dialysis 9 hours a night. O’Neal goes to bed at 8:30 p.m. and gets up between 6 and 6:30 a.m., depending on when the machine is done flushing the toxins out of her system. But on top of this daily treatment and working, she’s a full-time mom and takes care of the house and dog.
“I still feel so wiped,” she said, noting she does feel a bit better now that’s she’s undergoing dialysis. “I was grateful that I was able to start and get that energy back up a little, get myself prepared for the transplant and be as healthy as I can and not be exposed to germs.”
Jack wasn’t the only one who wanted to help O’Neal. O’Neal said she had several people come forward who were disqualified for one medical reason or another, including her 16-year-old daughter, Payge Richardson.
“I was like, ‘Oh kiddo you can’t. You really can’t.’ I obviously thanked her because that’s so sweet,” O’Neal said, adding that Payge couldn’t give her healthy kidney because she might be diagnosed with chronic kidney disease later in life.
For the operation to be successful, O’Neal said the donated kidney has to be fully functioning.
“Alta’s is functioning at 100 percent. I am extremely lucky,” she said.
O’Neal also considers herself lucky because she was placed on the organ transplant list in October since most people wait 2 to 6 years to find a matching organ.
April is a special month for the two friends, as O’Neal will turn 43 on April 11 and Jack’s birthday is April 8.
“We’re both celebrating our birthdays and having a kidney party,” O’Neal said, laughing.
Jack said she’s not scared about going under the knife, but is a bit nervous.
“I just want to make sure everything will work out,” she said. “Our genetics couldn’t get any closer for non-relatives.”
As for O’Neal’s children, both have been tested and have fully functioning kidneys. She said it will be up to them to monitor their organs once they get older, but for now, she can breath a sigh of relief. And she’s looking forward to traveling with her kids and husband once she’s recovered from the transplant.
“(Jack) just keeps on telling me, ‘Live your life to the fullest,’ and that’s what I definitely plan on doing,” O’Neal said.
April is also National Donate Life Month. Currently, there’s nearly 124,000 adults and children awaiting organ transplants, according to Donate Life America, which coordinates local and national events for the month-long campaign. To become an organ donor, visit http://donatelife.net/register-now.