Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Jennifer Gaffey laughs with her daughter Celena, 10, while making dinner in their Dacula home in April. Gaffey a mother of two who has been diagnosed with chronic kidney disease in 2008 had the kidney transplant on April 10th thanks to donor Howard Thomas, 51, of Virginia.
DACULA -- The normal things in life that a Mom does, like getting ready for a Girl Scout field trip, or a trip to Toys "R" Us for a Lego set, that's what Jennifer Gaffey has looked forward to since her life was given a second chance about two months ago.
Summer visits to the pool, and even training for a triathlon, were made possible on April 10 when Gaffey received a kidney transplant following at least five years of living with chronic kidney disease. Without a match from a relative or friend, her life changed thanks to a 51-year-old Virginia man who saw an ABC News story about a kidney donor, and decided that he would do the same thing.
Looking back, before her 2008 diagnosis, this Dacula mother of two now recognizes signs of a kidney condition as early as in her 20s, more than 10 years ago. Her lab reports showed a creatinine number, a chemical waste molecule, that fluctuated, but not quite enough to alert doctors. When a doctor first told Gaffey that the kidneys weren't working properly, they were already at just 50 percent of normal.
As her kidneys declined, toxins built up in her body because the kidneys didn't filter them out. Soon, nerve damage developed in her legs and she was diagnosed with neuropathy. Working full-time at a desk job the pain was unbearable.
"I would be in meetings and couldn't stop thinking about my legs," she said.
So on her doctor's advice, Gaffey went on disability to rest at home, and in July last year, she began dialysis. For eight hours each day, she was hooked up to a machine and a fluid solution in her belly would draw out toxins.
As a two-time cancer survivor, Gaffey's husband, Mark, was disqualified from donating one of his kidneys, so friends, neighbors and co-workers got in line to be tested.
The long and meticulous tests looked for high blood pressure, cancer, diabetes and included MRIs, heart ultrasounds and stress tests. More than 30 people were tested, including some who had never met Gaffey, which stunned the employees in the living donor office.
Because of her level of antibodies, which are cells that act as a primary immune defense, Gaffey was given an estimate of five to seven years to be on the kidney transplant list.
Four people made it through the initial tests -- her sister, a cousin and two friends -- to become partners in a donor exchange database. Gaffey and her younger sister, Sarah Martin, didn't match each other, but joined four other people, connected through an algorithm, after a medical issue broke the initial group of 12. The six hailed from New York, Michigan, Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
Her sister's donation was even more of a risk because their father, who suffered from kidney disease, had received a kidney transplant 21 years ago from someone who died in a motorcycle accident.
Gaffey's brother-in-law and parents were all leery about the idea of Martin donating in case she needed a kidney herself.
"She's really stubborn, and she decided she wanted to help her big sister. So she called me up one day and said, 'I'm giving you my kidney,'" Gaffey recalled her sister saying. "I said, 'What?' "I just decided, it feels right, it's the right decision, I'm going to do this for you.'"
So Martin was especially disappointed that she couldn't provide the match directly, Gaffey said.
A match was made in March, and soon the surgery was scheduled for Gaffey's new kidney to come from a transplant center in Richmond, Va., from Howard Thomas, who was so moved by a news story, that he said he was on the computer before the show was over searching for ways to sign up.
"I'm going to throw my name in the hat, and maybe I can help someone else out," said Thomas, who ran a half marathon six weeks after his surgery.
Thomas' kidney arrived like every organ does, with a personal courier and GPS tracking device, to the Emory Transplant Center. One unique element in the package, though, was a yellow card where Thomas wrote Gaffey a message:
"Here's wishing you so much happiness on your special day
"May God richly bless you! Your friend
"P.S. A Guinness every now and then will make this fellow feel right at home"
Already moved by his kindness to donate at all, Gaffey was particularly taken by the extra touch of writing a card, so her sister did the same thing when she donated her kidney.
When Thomas and Gaffey first met, it was on a Skype call with the other members of their transplant circle.
"I looked at him and said, 'Thank you,'" Gaffey said. "But thank you just doesn't cover the amount of gratitude. The words just seem small."
Yet Thomas said what he went through didn't compare to Gaffey's battle.
"I had the easy part, absolutely no doubt," he said. "All I had to do was show up."
The kidney, which sits near her right hip bone in a sort of protective pocket, is behind a five-inch scar and attached to a femoral artery, Gaffey said.
Throughout the battle with chronic kidney disease, Gaffey was showered with support and after months of receiving three meals each week from neighbors, Gaffey suggested they stop for a while and let her cook some on her own.
"They wouldn't hear of it," she said. "That was their way of helping."
Support came in every direction. Her children's day care put on a spaghetti fundraiser where it sold children's artwork, while another group sold cookbooks to raise money to offset medical bills.
Her father paid for maid and lawn service, and a gym membership, she said.
"I can't imagine how it would have been without that support," Gaffey said. "Not only my family, my father, but our community has really carried me these last couple of years."
That support also came from her husband and children. Celena, 10, and Hayden, 6, who carried bags of dialysis solution upstairs each night, and Celena, who's interested in becoming a doctor, even read her mother's college pre-medical textbooks.Mark said he took on more responsibility around the house in terms of homework, meals and grocery shopping. And while he felt helpless as his wife battled severe headaches, hunger and general grumpiness, the days following the transplant were already an improvement.
"Even though she was feeling cruddy," Mark said. "You could see there was a little glimmer already back in (her eyes), and as sore as she was, and as grumpy as she was, I could tell she was getting back to her old self. She's fun, flirty Jen."
Life, Gaffey said, is going very well, including training for a triathlon.
"I've got to get in with the family," she said, referring to Mark and Celena already having triathlon experience. "I don't want to be a cheerleader. I want to be a participant."