SANTA FE (AP) – Two Santa Fe women and their families are feeling extra grateful this holiday season.
Just a few weeks ago, Julie Chambers donated one of her kidneys to Kim Muller. While Chambers was still limping up and down the stairs of her south-side apartment because of pain from major abdominal surgery, and Muller was quarantined at her Eldorado home while her immune system copes with anti-rejection drugs, doctors said the surgery was a success.
Their tale is staggering. Until a month ago, Chambers and Muller were two strangers with a mutual acquaintance. Now, they share an uncommon bond.
“It’s a very heartwarming story,” said Deb McElroy, who worked with Chambers at the state Environment Department and knew Muller from church.
McElroy unknowingly matched the pair when she left a church newsletter in Chambers’ office last spring. Chambers saw a notice inside it about Muller’s need for a kidney, and the rest of the pieces fell into place. Two teams of surgeons completed the hours-long procedure at Presbyterian Medical Center in Albuquerque on Nov. 8. Chambers was home two days later, and Muller two days after that.
“(Chambers) keeps saying it has changed her life. I think it probably has,” McElroy said in a telephone interview. “It will change her children’s lives and it has changed the lives of her circle of friends. It just has an enormous impact, the fallout from something like this. All the people who know her or who were involved in some way, it just can’t help but affect you.”
McElroy retired last summer and began traveling, but she came back to New Mexico to be at the hospital during the surgery, spending time with friends and relatives of both the donor and recipient.
“Everyone was very nervous there, but it was great,” she said. “The nurses were so amazing at keeping everyone informed. They would call out from the operating room and tell you about every hour what was happening.”
Muller, 57, has polycystic kidney disease, a genetic disorder that her father also had. The donated kidney could prolong her life for up to two decades or more. It will be another 10 weeks or so, however, before doctors are somewhat sure whether the organ will function correctly in her body. She will have to take a handful of drugs every day for the rest of her life to keep it working, and her immune system will never be at 100 percent.
On Thanksgiving Day, Muller and her partner dined on carryout from The Compound, the restaurant where Muller works as a chef. Organ recipients are never out of the woods, she said, but she’s glad that so far, everything is “doing what it is supposed to do at the moment.”
“We definitely have much to be thankful for,” she said. “I am really pleased. I feel a responsibility to the transplant team and to Julie and to my family to take care of myself and make sure I make best use of this gift.”
Meanwhile, Chambers’ home was filled with neighbors whom she invited for a feast prepared by her friend and children’s godmother, Paula Rushford.
Making the decision to become a living donor, she said, happened because she felt called to it. Since the surgery, she feels like she has a new outlook.
“I don’t know if this is an after-effect of the anesthesia or whether it’s having gone through this experience, but it’s like I’m living in high def,” she said. “I am more aware. I can see the patterns on the leaves, the colors are more bright, the sky is a more vivid blue, and I have this overwhelming sense of being a part of everything, more than I had before.”
Already, two other people have told her they are seriously considering making a living organ donation. Her 11-year-old daughter, Caitlyn, has been wearing an organ-donor awareness ribbon on her T-shirt. More than 430 people in New Mexico alone are in need of a lifesaving kidney, she said.
Chambers, 43, says she’s pretty sure that retelling the story will make her cry every time for decades to come. She wiped at her brimming eyes with the back of her hand as she talked about it, alternately laughing and weeping.
“Kim said she gets up feeling perky in the morning, and I said, ‘That’s me, honey.’”
Jane Phillips/Santa Fe New Mexican