A Blaine woman who plans to donate a kidney to her cousin is encouraging people to learn more about becoming living organ donors, a process that she said is not as scary as it sounds.
Amy Ashby, 36, plans to donate a kidney to her 42-year-old cousin, Justin Reilly, who has a condition named IgA nephropathy. The disease involves a build-up of antibodies in the kidneys resulting in inflammation that can hamper the kidneys’ ability to filter waste from the blood.
Reilly, who grew up in Blaine and now lives in Houston, Texas, was diagnosed with the condition in 2009, and was able to manage it using prescription drugs for a while. “It’s like any autoimmune condition,” he said. “It sits there and does nothing for a while, and then there’s a flare-up and we scramble to use drugs.”
Over time, Reilly’s condition worsened and in April, he started dialysis. In the meantime, it became clear that a transplant would eventually be needed. Because Ashby is very active on Facebook due to her online Tupperware business, Reilly’s mother asked her to prepare a Facebook post searching for a kidney donor.
“We sat down at Thanksgiving last year and came up with a story, made a little blurb and posted it on Facebook,” said Ashby. “Because of my business, I have friends all over the world. In one country, it was even re-posted in a different language. It was pretty cool to see that happen. My cousin, my family going viral on Facebook – that’s just surreal.”
Ashby’s Facebook post included a link to an initial medical questionnaire. To test it out, Ashby decided to fill out the link, answering questions on everything from cancer history to history of heartburn. A few weeks went by, and Ashby suddenly heard from Reilly’s medical team in Houston. “They wanted me to provide them with some medical records and they wanted to order some lab work,” she said.
Ashby agreed, but hadn’t really processed it yet. “At this point, in the back of my head, I just hadn’t accepted it yet,” she said. Just before Christmas, the team in Houston called again, saying they had prescreened her and wanted her to come to Houston for more testing. Ashby, who has two young children, was hesitant to travel. She asked the doctors to put her name on hold and move to the next person on the list.
Soon after, Reilly and his family visited Washington, and during the visit, Ashby learned that Reilly’s condition was getting worse. “I looked right at my cousin’s wife, and without even thinking, I said I will call Houston on Monday and I’ll get my name back on the list,” she said.
In March, Ashby visited Houston for three intense days of testing. She participated in a class about organ donation, and was assigned a coordinator. “Your coordinator is the go-between,” she said. “They are very focused on you as a potential donor. They don’t care what you decide. They tell you that you don’t have to do this, and we will help you with an explanation to your recipient as to why.” Ashby said that this was very reassuring, knowing that someone was in her corner.
After further testing, and some repeat tests, Ashby said that the big surgery is tentatively scheduled for October 8. There is a possibility that it could get pushed back if she or Reilly have any changes in health. “I can’t get sick, and he can’t get any sicker,” said Ashby. “We are both crossing our fingers and saying our prayers.”
During the surgery and recovery period, Ashby will be gone for almost three weeks. She said it will impact her 5-year-old and her 10-year-old, who will be looked after by her mother and her in-laws while she is away. Her 10-year-old, who has medical conditions herself, understands why she is going through the process. “We’ve had some very real conversations that Justin is very, very sick, and if this goes on too long he could die, so mommy needs to do this to help him live,” she said.
Her 5-year-old doesn’t understand what is happening as much, but “thank God for school starting and a phenomenal teacher,” she said. Ashby is also being assisted by some friends, who will be coming to help her after the surgery and fly home with her. Because she is self-employed, she has the flexibility to take time off from her Tupperware business.
Reilly is extremely thankful for what Ashby is doing. “I’m incredibly grateful,” he said. “It’s just a wonderful thing she’s doing.” Reilly, whose job working on power plants took him from Blaine to Texas in 2001, is currently unable to work. He said he is looking forward to a new chapter of his life after the upcoming surgery.
Ashby said that after the surgery, her life won’t be very different from before. “It isn’t really a big impact,” she said. “There are small things. Your body will have to adjust to having one kidney. You cut salt and you drink more water. Contact sports are not recommended, but that’s not my lifestyle.”
Ashby is encouraging others to do some research to find out more about living donation. She said resources such as kidney.org, the National Kidney Foundation’s website, offer lots of good information to those considering organ donation. “Once you educate yourself, you learn that you can do this and live a normal life after,” she said. “It’s such a small piece, a small amount of time, to sacrifice for a much larger purpose.”