POOLER, Ga. (WSAV) – 10 people around the country are now linked by a common goal, to save a life, thanks to a pair of friends in Pooler.
Shelly Byrd’s mother, aunts, and cousin all had failing kidneys in their 30’s, and she found out she was next when she was diagnosed with a rare family genetic condition.
“Several family members, several people tried to donate,” remembers Shelly. “No match. There was just not going to be a match.”
Byrd was down to 20% kidney function and facing dialysis and an uncertain future. When her brother was determined not to be a match, Byrd was left with few options.
“I really thought because I was ahead of the game it would be easy. It was a slam dunk,” explained Byrd. It was hard you start to lose hope, you are frustrated, down. and you already don’t feel good”
That’s when her friend Jamie Rexroat came to her aid. Rexroat had been tested and was not a match for Byrd, but that didn’t stop her from trying to help.
She went to the Medical University of South Carolina where doctors added Shelly to a regional donor list. But they said there was still only an extremely small chance for a match.
Then doctors asked her to consider something else, a national kidney chain.
Rexroat would donate a kidney to someone else, who’s donor would then pass their kidney on to another patient, until finally a matched kidney would come back to Byrd.
“Its something you don’t ask for, How do you ask for that and how do you ask a mother of three and a wife and a sister and daughter. how do you ask them to go do this, I couldn’t,” said Byrd.
“I knew it was something I couldn’t shake and I had to do,” said Rexroat. “It was something that would not leave me.
“You never feel like you are that worthy or anything you never think you are a good enough person in your life that someone would be willing to give you your life back,” said Shelly.
“It didn’t matter. if she was going to get a kidney it meant the same thing to me,” said Jamie. I can’t explain but it was in my heart and soul. I had to go get tested again.”
Rexroat did get tested again and was determined to be a match for someone in Madison, Wisconsin.
In February 2019, Rexroat went in for surgery and sent her kidney to Madison. At the same time, donors in California and Washington State also did their part. The last link, a kidney from New Jersey, finally came back to Byrd.
Byrd had surgery the same day as her friend.
“There I was just getting out of surgery and here she comes,” Shelly laughs, “She’s coming walking down the hallway. I’m like what are you doing? You are supposed to be in the bed.”
Doctors called Byrd’s case a “miracle kidney chain” because of how many people who received kidneys. Byrd says she was predicted to have a 99% less chance of finding a match along the way.
Byrd and Rexroat both recovered and got back to life, linked forever to eight other people they’ve never met through the gift of life.
“You never feel like you are that worthy or anything,” Byrd said. “You never think you are a good enough person in your life that someone would be willing to give you your life back.”
Rexroat checks on Byrd after every appointment to make sure she’s feeling okay.
“Every doctor’s appointment I get a text message from her what are your numbers today,” smiles Byrd. “How is it going or a random how are you feeling? So I don’t get too far from her.”
Both ladies say they’d like to meet all of the other donors in the chain someday. But for now are just happy being close friends, bonded forever.
“She’s still the same person she was before the transplant,” says Shelly. “She didn’t change as a person, it didn’t change our relationship, we are still the same people.”
“I have absolutely no regrets whatsoever,” says Jamie. “It is one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever done, I expect nothing in return.”
“There are no words that would ever describe we feel, I know how I feel about it because I have my life back, but even for my family, my children, my husband, they are beyond grateful,” says Shelly.