BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — The last time Cheryl Yurek applied for her driver’s license she happily signed her name next to the box that read “Organ donor,” just as she’s done for years, often mindlessly, but with good intention.
She never expected it would lead her to wearing a hospital gown at dawn with her nerves tingling. Cheryl is prepped for surgery — a procedure that will give a woman she met mere months ago her kidney — and the chance to live a normal life.
“This is it,” Cheryl said Thursday morning before surgery, with the orange sun splashing her face, her bright stocking feet dangling from the hospital bed. “There’s no backing out. There’s no stopping this one now. We’re full on.”
Two days before marked the first time Cheryl and her kidney recipient Gail Kleparek had met face to face, after corresponding via Facebook and phone for the past seven months.
Gail has been on almost daily dialysis for the past three years, after radiation and chemotherapy to kill her breast cancer also killed her kidneys, which had been degenerating and failing since her 20s.
“It was life-consuming,” Gail said. “Every five hours I had to do [dialysis], for a half hour, 45 minutes. It was like, I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t go out anywhere without having to plan around that.”
That wasn’t a life, she decided. But she had few options.
“I was told when I was diagnosed and put on dialysis that because of my rare blood type, which is O positive, and because of my age, where I’d fall on the list, I’d be at the bottom,” she said. “And 90 percent, I would not get a kidney, ever. I’d be on dialysis for the rest of my life. I was depressed, very depressed.”
On Nov. 24, Gail decided to take a chance and she shared her story on Facebook. Just days later, and fewer than 20 miles away, Cheryl also took a chance.
“I’m O positive. What do I have to do?” Cheryl reached out via social media and asked. “That was basically it.”
Months of physical tests followed. Cheryl has taken a dozen trips to ECMC for testing. “Thursday will be lucky number 13,” she said.
But the mental test was likely the most demanding.
“A lot of thought and conversation,” Cheryl said. “It wasn’t just something I woke up and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to donate a kidney today.’ It was, ‘What’s going to happen to me if I do this and something happens to me?’ Because I’m a mom too, and my biggest concern was, what if something happens to my kids and they need a kidney? Where am I? But at the end of the day, this was the right thing to do.”
Gail said she understands the weight of Cheryl’s decision and knows that it doesn’t come without its own risks.
“She’s giving up her life. What happens down the road something happens to her other kidney?” Gail said. “I mean, I’m just so grateful to her. So grateful. It’s just, no words to describe it. It was just so amazing.”
“I’ll be here a long time,” she added later. “And I’ll be able to tell the story to my grand children, to my great grandchildren, hopefully.”
Strangers before November, Gail and Cheryl have grown to depend on one another; and not just because Cheryl is carrying the organ that will save Gail’s life but because being a donor requires guts and going through with it requires support.
“Because sometimes when you’re feeling, like, ‘Oh my God, I cannot do this anymore. I am done. I had a really crappy day at the hospital’, it’s nice to have someone that gives you the hug and says, ‘You got this. You’re gonna be fine. It’s gonna happen,'” Cheryl said. “At the end of the day, she’s a wife, a mom, a grandma. So am I. Why would I deny someone the chance to keep doing that, and being as awesome as she is? That’s what it came down to.”
“She’s been through so much already. Give her another chance to keep going.”
Gail will take medication the rest of her life to ensure her body doesn’t reject her new kidney. She’ll actually have three kidneys now, although only one will function.
Cheryl is scheduled to be released Saturday and plans on being back at work Monday. Meanwhile, Gail will be in a hospital for a little while longer as her body gets used to her new kidney.
As of this week, 460 people are waiting for transplants — 411 kidney, 31, kidney/pancreas, 18 pancreas — according to hospital officials. There are approximately 200 to 250 more who are in the process of referral and evaluation. The center performs as many as 80 kidney and pancreas transplants in a year.
For more information about transplant services in western New York, visit the websites of Unyts and ECMC’s Regional Center of Excellence for Transplantation and Kidney Care.