The thing Jones Middle School eighth-grader Will Walker has learned the most over the past year is to never give up.
Walker, who was diagnosed with a kidney disorder at 11 years old, had a transplant using a kidney from a deceased donor earlier this year. It failed, though, when doctors discovered he had a blood clot the day after the surgery.
Walker said he was losing hope he’d get better.
“I was giving up a little bit after the first kidney failed,” he said.
But he found a hero living next door. MaryJo Ray-Jewett lives on the same street as the Walkers. Will’s mother Jenn Walker said Ray-Jewett was one of the first people to find out that her son was in renal failure. Ray-Jewett took the concept of being a good neighbor to another level when she applied to donate her own kidney to Will. She was a perfect match.
“From the beginning, I knew I was going to be a match for him,” Ray-Jewett said. “Even when he got the deceased donor kidney — and that should have been a moment of, ‘OK this is wrapped up and moving along’ — there was still something that was like, ‘No, this isn’t done yet.’”
As Ray-Jewett tells the story, it was purely circumstantial that she was the first to find out about Will’s condition. Jenn was at her mailbox shortly after finding out her son was in renal failure while Ray-Jewett happened to be outside. Jenn broke down when they began to talk and Ray-Jewett immediately began to offer ways to help.
“I was immediately thinking, how do I get tested?” Ray-Jewett said.
It was a welcomed surprise for Will who had known Ray-Jewett as his neighbor and mom’s friend. But the two share a connection that few others can attest to sharing. Will said Ray-Jewett and Jenn are even closer friends now than they were before.
“I was really surprised,” Will said. “When I went into renal failure she said she’d sign up and I thought it was crazy that she matched perfectly to me.”
Will was first diagnosed with a disorder in 2017 when his pediatrician noticed he had stopped growing during a routine physical. His lack of symptoms led doctors to believe the case was something mild.
In January, Will and Jenn went to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s AFLAC Cancer Center to receive tests for blood-borne diseases. Doctors also conducted lab panels on several different organs. The Walkers were out at lunch and shopping that same day when Jenn received an urgent call saying Will was in renal failure and needed to be hospitalized immediately.
Doctors told Jenn that Will would have about a year to live with his current kidney before he would need regular dialysis or a transplant.
Fast-forward to Jan. 28 of the following year, the Walkers began exploring transplant options. Will was placed on a list and two days later he was matched with a donor. Had the surgery been a success, Will would have had eight to 10 years of good health before another kidney was needed.
The best day of Will and Jenn’s lives was followed by their worst day. One day after the transplant a blood clot forced Will to go on dialysis.
“I was the first one in line to give Will my kidney, but I wasn’t approved yet,” Jenn said. “Because of the complications, I couldn’t imagine not being with him, because I would have been in the hospital across the street had it been my kidney. That’s when I went to MaryJo and asked her to go in front of me, and she said, yes.”
Ray-Jewett works for Gwinnett County Public Schools as an occupational therapist. She works with special needs children at several schools, mostly in the Duluth cluster. Before the kidney transplant, Ray-Jewett said she and Jenn had a typical neighborly relationship.
They would wave at each other across the street. Since Ray-Jewett is often as school before her children, Jenn would sometimes take them to school if they missed the bus. Ray-Jewett’s children would pet sit for the Walkers.
“We weren’t best buddies who would text all the time … it was just being good neighbors,” she said.
Will said he feels healthy, now. He’s getting back to being a normal kid and back to school more often.
“After the first one when I went back, I was still in the dumps because I was on dialysis, but I was still happy to see my friends,” Will said. “Now I’m just totally happy to see them all the time.”
Jenn and Ray-Jewett’s relationship has changed now. Will said Jenn and Ray-Jewett talk a lot, especially regarding updates about Will’s health.
“I never thought it would get to the point that she was a match and she knew all along it was her,” Jenn said.
That Will is healthy and the new kidney is functioning is all the repayment Ray-Jewett said she could ask for.
“I get to see him daily and know he gets to go to school every day and walk his dogs — to know I’ve been a part of this is incredible,” Ray-Jewett said.