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Making sisters out of strangers:

A kidney transplant brings two Petersburg women together


Submitted Photo

Petersburg residents Joey Doyle (left) and Beth Richards pose in their hospital gowns at Virginia Mason Hospital. Beth donated a kidney to Joey who has polycystic kidney disease.

Long-time Petersburg residents Joey Doyle and Beth Richards were small-town strangers before an unlikely event brought them together last year.

"I kind of knew who she was, but we had never really socialized or anything like that," Doyle said. "We're sisters now."

Not unlike twins, they solidified their sisterhood in a hospital room. But Doyle and Richards don't share a mother, they share an organ. It was a kidney transplant that brought them together.

Joey has polycystic kidney disease (PKD), a genetic disease that causes cysts to form on the kidneys, decreasing their function over time and causing other health problems like high blood pressure.

Joey inherited the disease from her mother who passed away at age 34 from a cerebral hemorrhage. At the time Joey was 10, the oldest among her three siblings.

"I don't think they realized that she had the disease at the time," Joey said. They later found out she had PKD which is linked to such hemorrhages.

After identifying the disease, Joey and her siblings learned that there is a 50 percent chance of inheriting the disease from a parent who has it.

"They thought that any one of us could have it," she said.

The first sign that Joey had PKD showed up in her late twenties in the form of high blood pressure, a common first symptom of the disease. The problem was exacerbated by the increased strain on her body from pregnancy. "It got so bad with my second child, he actually was a C-section baby." Since then Joey's been on progressively more and stronger medication to help regulate her blood pressure.

As the years passed Joey raised her children with her husband George and worked in the Petersburg elementary school as a reading specialist. Along the way the cysts on her kidneys grew and her kidney function was slowly decreasing.

In her daily life Joey continued taking medication to regulate her blood pressure, but she skirted another common symptom of PKD.

"I was very fortunate, I never had any pain, but many, many, many people with this kidney disease have a lot of pain," she said. Flank pain and cyst pain can both be caused by the growing cysts on the kidneys.

Joey tried to lead as healthy a life as she could, but the inevitable eventually happened.

"Being a healthy person can only last so long before you have to do something about it," she said. "By the time I was 50 they're saying 'ya know, you're gonna have to start thinking about this because you're going to need a transplant or something.'"

Late in 2011, Doyle wrote a letter explaining the disease and her need for a kidney donor. Her letter was published in the Petersburg Pilot and she also sent it out in her annual Christmas cards to friends and family.

People started coming forward from near and far to begin the lengthy process of tests and procedures. In town, Angel Worhatch was among the first people to begin the process. After going through several sets of tests, Angel made it as far as the final testing at Virginia Mason hospital in Seattle in 2012.

"She's the one that got the closest before Beth," Joey said. "She actually went down and went through the testing only to find out that there was something minorly wrong."

Though the minor problem wouldn't affect Angel's health, it meant she wasn't able to donate her kidney to Joey.

After Joey's initial letter in the paper, Petersburg Pilot publishers Ron and Anne Loesch ran a weekly classified ad saying that Joey was in search of a kidney and providing contact information for interested potential donors.

Locally the ad raised awareness and many people came forward, making it through various stages of testing. But as the days passed in 2012, no perfect match had been found.

Joey said she experienced the ups and downs of hope and disappointment as people came forward and began, and eventually ended, the process.

"You're afraid to even think that this could possibly happen, practically until the day of surgery," she said, though she tried to keep her faith by praying and repeating what became her personal mantra "have the faith, keep the faith."

Meanwhile a chance encounter prompted Beth to make a call she'd long been thinking of making.

"One day I was driving into town and here's Joey, she's walking out of town and I saw her walking and right away my heart just started stirring...I turned the car around right then."

She drove straight home, pulled out the newspaper and called the number to get more information on how to become a donor.

Beth said in prior weeks she'd seen the classified ad and wished there was something she could do to help out. In the summer of 2013, she embarked on the process of seeing what help she could be as a potential donor.

Potential donors go through a series of tests involving a lot of blood work, a stress test and a thorough analysis of their lifestyle.

"You can't have high blood pressure. You can't be overweight. No diabetes," Beth said recounting the long list of requirements for potential donors.

When the testing moved even further to the final phases of testing down south at Virginia Mason Hospital, things were looking very promising.

"At that point I think they realized we were a pretty good match," Doyle said. "We were a really good match actually. I think they said we could be like a sibling match."

While the testing process for Beth was progressing, so was the degeneration of Joey's kidneys.

Though Beth was in the final phases of the donor testing process, Joey had to start preparing for dialysis as her kidney function was down to 9 percent.

"We couldn't get everything done fast enough, so I had to go on dialysis."

She began at-home peritoneal dialysis in her temporary home in Napa, Calif. near family in September of last year. Though her days looked normal– playing with grandkids and going out– her evenings were spent at home hooked up to a machine that did the work of filtering the blood her kidneys could no longer do effectively.

That was probably the hardest time for Joey.

"I didn't feel great when I was on it. I felt like it was keeping me alive. That was all it was doing," she said.

But it kept her alive long enough to meet Beth, her approved donor, at Virginia Mason this March for a transplant.

By the time the two were in their hospital gowns and prepped for surgery, both were in good spirits. Joey recalls a lot of excitement that morning.

Beth said all along the way doctors prodded her mind as well as her body, given the possibility, however remote, of a negative outcome for either woman.

"They (doctors) wanted to make sure I was going to be okay with this," she said. After looking into the risks and statistics associated with the procedure, Beth decided, "It looked okay to me."

In fact, come procedure time, "I wasn't nervous at all," she started. "I shouldn't say 'at all'" she continued, remembering that she almost asked the attending nurse to say a prayer before they started the surgery. "But I didn't say it. I think I just went right to sleep and it was done."

Surgeons removed one of Joey's kidneys that weighed a whooping eight pounds due to the fluid-filled cysts that had grown on it. It was replaced with one of Beth's kidneys, leaving her with one other one to continue doing its essential work for her body.

That kidney saved Joey's life, but its absence can scarcely be felt by Beth.

"It's a totally normal life," Beth said of her time since the surgery. "You don't know the difference...I can't tell if I had two kidneys."

Beth said she can't quite explain why she decided to donate.

"Because I really didn't know why I was doing it, just that I knew it was the right thing to do."

Joey said she wanted to share her story to encourage people to not be afraid to step forward if someone is in need of an organ.

"I don't think people think about it really if it's not affecting them. I want people to realize how much that (donating) means to people who were in my position," she said. "Don't be afraid to make that phone really, truly is a gift of life."

Joey and Beth both said they've felt tremendous support from the community throughout the process.

"I can't say enough about the people in this community and other friends and family and how they really came together for it," Joey said. "It really was a pretty special time."


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