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A perfect match: Woman donates kidney to friend

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

When Wanda Reisinger broke the news to her friend Margaret Ramos that she intended to give Ramos one of her kidneys, the two women sat in a crowded Olive Garden restaurant.

Reisinger had just driven Ramos to a doctor's appointment in preparation for kidney dialysis.

"I was just pretty much crying in a restaurant, trying not to cry in a restaurant and make a spectacle of myself," Ramos said. "I was kind of dumbfounded, kind of shocked. But even though I was shocked, it didn't surprise me because of who she is."

Two weeks ago, the two women underwent successful living donor transplant surgery at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta. Reisinger, a nursing student at Mercer University, now has one kidney, Ramos three. Doctors couldn't remove Ramos' other two kidneys, swollen to the size of footballs, because it would have caused too much trauma to her body.

Ramos' incision is significant but Reisinger's is minimal because doctors used laparoscopic surgery to remove her kidney. She hopes that sharing her story will encourage others to be donors.

"It's really come a long way," she said. "They've made great strides. It's a lot better than it used to be."

Reisinger explained that when one kidney is removed, the other one grows in size and takes over most of the functions of the missing kidney.

"There really is no long-term deficiency," Reisinger said. "Having one kidney is not a problem, and that is the beauty of it. We can all live with one kidney."

Ramos suffers from polycystic kidney disease, a genetic medical condition in which cysts grow in the kidney and liver, becoming part of the fabric of the organs. Five years ago, doctors removed 70 percent of Ramos' liver, which has since regenerated. She has also undergone several other hospitals stays due to infection from the cysts rupturing in her kidneys.

Symptoms of the disease began to surface 15 years ago for the now-58-year-old Ramos. Despite her medical problems, Ramos coached the Honey Creek swim team, on which her and Reisinger's children swam and played tennis, with Reisinger as her partner. She also ran an engineering business with her husband.

None of Ramos' family members -- including husband, Ray, and children, Michael, 28, Katie, 26 and Emily, 19 -- proved to be good matches for a transplant and doctors placed her on the transplant list in June. Because of her blood type and unique antigen makeup, Ramos expected to be on the list for at least three years.

"You can live a number of years on dialysis, but the longer you are on dialysis, the harder the transplant operation is," Ramos said.

Ramos, who just celebrated her birthday on Christmas Day, said when doctors put Reisinger's kidney into her body, it started working immediately. She calls Reisinger her "kidney sister."

"There's absolutely no gift in the world that could have been better," said Ramos, who said it couldn't have taken place without the support of Reisinger's husband, Michael, and their four children -- Bridgette, 18, Luke, 16, Thomas, 13, and Catherine, 9.

"It's really a gift from one family to another."

Ramos and Reisinger met seven years ago when Reisinger moved into the Honey Creek community. The women played Bunco, a dice game, with other neighborhood ladies in Honey Creek.

"We knew at some point she would need a new kidney and we used to joke at Bunco, 'I'm going to give her a kidney,' 'No, I'm going to give her a kidney,'" Reisinger said. "She came close this year to being put on dialysis and that was the dividing line for me."

Reisinger, who has studied polycystic kidney disease and volunteered at a summer camp for children with organ transplants, mostly kidney, said she began the evaluation process in May to see if she would be compatible with Ramos. She didn't tell Ramos about her plans until she knew that her blood matched and that she was healthy enough.

The 45-year-old hadn't considered the spiritual connection she would develop with Ramos until after the procedure.

"You just feel life more, you just feel deeper I think," said Reisinger, a Christian. "It goes without saying that when we are going about our lives and giving to each other that is when we are being Christ-like because that is the example that He gave us is to love one another and give to one another and so that's what we do every day with each other."

Both women intend to educate the public about being an organ donor.

"It's made me want to do more, pass it forward," Ramos said. "When someone does such a selfless act, it inspires you to become better."