A young woman who dreamed of donating an organ as a teenager saved a complete stranger whose kidneys were failing - and now the two have become best friends.
Leah Stewart, 22, created a bucket list when she was 16, citing ‘donate a kidney’ as one of her wishes. It was only when she read a blog post written by Denny Chetty, 23, five years later, that she put it into action.
Although the two from Auckland weren’t a match with each other, they took part in a paired exchange, swapping with another donor-recipient duo in July this year.
“Leah hates being called an angel, but she’s changed my life forever,” Miss Chetty said.
Growing up, she hadn’t suffered any health problems and loved hiking, climbing and playing sports. But when she was 14, she fell ill on a school trip and was rushed to hospital.
“That day, my whole life changed,” Miss Chetty said. “My mum, Mala, dad Logan, I were sat down and a specialist explained that my kidneys had stopped working. He didn’t know what had caused it to happen, but they were so badly damaged I needed to start dialysis immediately.”
Surgeons put a tube in her stomach, then she had to be attached to a machine for nine hours every night to clean her blood of toxins.
“It meant no sleepovers, travelling or swimming,” Miss Chetty said. “But I told Mum and Dad it wouldn’t stop me doing anything else and I vowed to stay positive.”
In 2013, Miss Chetty’s brother Avelin donated a kidney but her body rejected it.
“He was devastated he couldn’t fix me, but we just had to accept it,” she said. “I couldn’t control it, but I could control my grades, so I worked hard to get into law school.”
Miss Chetty then started on hemodialysis – meaning three times a week for four hours, her blood was cleaned by a machine at home.
“I’d type my assignments with one hand while my other arm was hooked up to it,” she explained. “I scheduled sessions around my social life too, so I could still go to parties and acting classes! My family joked that I didn’t have an off button, but I wanted to make my life exciting so all the treatment seemed worthwhile.”
Then in 2016, she was put on the transplant register.
“I didn’t expect to get a second kidney, so I pushed it to the back of my mind and gave up on the thought of it. Accepting I’d be on dialysis for the rest of my life, I got used to permanently feeling nauseous, thirsty and not being able to pee.”
Around the same time, Miss Chetty started a blog, Denny Daily. While she posted details about her life with kidney failure, she wanted it to be motivational and she encouraged her readers not to let anything hold them back.
“I didn’t think anyone would read it, but after one particular post, I got a message on Facebook from two sisters, Leah and Kori Stewart,” she explained. "They’d gone to my school, but we didn’t know each other. They said they couldn’t believe what I’d been going through and they’d like to talk to me about it. I told them a bit about my life and then another message appeared. It said ‘We’d love to donate.’
“I had no idea why – they were complete strangers! They were adamant they wanted to get tested though.”
During the process, Kori was told she couldn’t donate but Leah was a potential candidate.
“My mum was astonished and asked if she was a close friend and my doctor was just as a surprised because it’s so rare for people to come forward these days.”
Next the doctors put their blood together to see if they were a match, but it was the worst rejection they’d ever seen. Despite that, the girls decided they should probably meet for coffee.
“Chatting non-stop, we had so much in common,” Miss Chetty said. “Even though it hadn’t worked out, I knew we’d be friends forever. Then a few weeks later, Leah phoned to tell me the hospital said we could do a paired exchange. And less than an hour after our blood results were put onto the database we got a match! I kept messaging her asking if she was really sure she wanted to do it. She was going to get voluntarily cut up, I thought she was crazy! But Leah replied saying this just feels so right to me.”
In July this year, they both went to Auckland City Hospital. Miss Stewart was taken into theatre first, then her kidney was removed at the same time as Miss Chetty’s donor’s before they were both put on planes.
“When I woke up later, I was in agony, but the first thing I asked was how Leah was doing,” Miss Chetty said. “The nurse said the operation had gone well, but as neither of us could get out of bed, Dad ran between us making videos. The next day, Leah came over to my bed and that night I was well enough to walk to her. After we were discharged, we stayed in touch constantly. Leah was so excited about her scar and we talked about how much I could pee now!
“We’re both single and during one chat Leah asked what we do when we meet someone and whether she should tell them she only has one kidney. I still have my original ones as well as Leah’s so I wonder whether I should tell them I have three!
“I’m so lucky there are people like her out there, who want to donate an organ. Christmas Eve marks the date I’ll be out of the critical period following my transplant. To Leah and my anonymous donor – you’ve given me the greatest gift of all - the gift of life. Thank you.”
Miss Stewart added: “From the moment I met the transplant coordinator, I was so excited. Of course it’s a big decision, but the doctors do an amazing job of testing you and they wouldn’t let you go ahead if there was a risk. It took a couple of months to recover but now I’m back to 100 per cent. In fact, I feel better than I did before because I know I’ve done something amazing for someone. You can live a long, healthy life with one kidney and I’d encourage everyone to start the conversation. The freedom it’s given Denny is priceless.
A version of this story was published in that’s life! Issue 51, 21 December 2017.