ZANESVILLE – Sisters Sunshine Clay of McConnelsville and Stephanie Nolen of South Zanesville aren’t related by blood and they have 14 years separating them, but they had hope to be connected in biological way after all.
Last year, Clay, 27, needed a kidney transplant, and her sister was to be her donor.
“We were almost a perfect match,” Nolen, 41, said.
Clay has been battling a congenital disorder her whole life after being born with a missing kidney. When she aged out of pediatric care, she began seeing Dr. Raul Hernandez through Genesis.
“I met Sunshine in November of 2011, she was 18 years old. She came here with her mom and she had pretty significant kidney failure,” Hernandez said.
The kidney she does have is very small and only functions at a fraction of a normal kidney’s capacity.
Transplant goes awry despite preparations
For the first few years under Hernandez’s care, Clay did not listen to his instructions.
“She was not real serious or quite understood the severity of her disease and the importance of being compliant,” Hernandez said. “As she got older, within the last few years, we became fairly close. She actually, by the time she was in her early 20’s, was a model patient. I mean, just always did what she was supposed to.”
When it was time for her transplant, Clay had done everything she needed to do in preparation.
The sisters went into surgery at The Ohio State University on Dec. 31.
“When she got it, everything was fine, seemed to be working well, and then the next day they had noticed that something was wrong, and it had developed a blood clot,” Nolen said.
Just 21 hours after the transplant, Clay was taken back into surgery, unaware of what was happening.
“They didn’t even tell me what was going on. They just took me,” she said.
With her sister recovering from her own surgery and her family at home, Clay had no familiar faces around before heading back to the operating room.
“Our mom wasn’t there because everything was so fine, and then it was all of a sudden, bam. They took her back to surgery and took the kidney out,” Nolen said.
Hernandez believes it was a surgical error that caused the kidney to fail immediately.
“The surgeon that called me was very upset,” Hernandez said. “But, you know, it happens. I have just not seen it before.”
Dealing with the aftermath
The loss of what was to be a life-changing transplant has been mentally and emotionally taxing on both women.
“Her sister was devastated,” Hernandez said. “She gave her a kidney, and it was just like, basically, might as well just thrown it in the garbage. It’s really sad.”
Nolen has struggled to understand why it happened.
“I was sad too, because, like, I felt like since we’re not like biological, like she would have part of me inside her,” Nolen said. “I used to tease her like she would end up acting like me because she had part of me. We just thought it was going to work, and it just didn’t.”
Clay needed counseling afterwards to work past the trauma.
Without a healthy kidney, she is limited physically.
“It really didn’t bother me until after the surgery. It just kind of hit me,” Clay said.
Prior to the surgery, she had the strength to work different jobs and lead an active lifestyle.
“I did all kinds of stuff. I worked as cook, but I also worked on a farm and did all kinds of stuff,” Clay said.
She chased cows, rode horses, fed animals and performed various other tasks on the farm.
Now she is tired most of the time.
“I sit at home and watch TV,” Clay said.
Dialysis will be necessary soon
Her kidney is only functioning at 13%, and it’s taking a toll on her body.
“It’s like so many more percentiles, I’ll have to get dialysis. I think it’s 10,” she said.
Hernandez said dialysis will be necessary very soon. He still wants her to have another transplant, but this time the donor pool will be even smaller.
“Once you have a transplant, immediately your body gets sensitized. So now Sunshine has a very high level of antibodies to get another transplant, and that’s very unfortunate. It’s going to be much more difficult for her to now get a transplant,” Hernandez said.
Nolen doesn’t want her sister to give up on the thought of a new kidney. She spends much of her time trying to raise awareness about Clay’s story in hopes of finding a donor.
Friends and acquaintances of both sisters have begun the process of becoming a match, but without any success so far.
“There was a nurse at the hospital who said she was going to be tested,” Nolen said.
But Clay is hesitant to go through the process another time. The operation was intense and the results left a lasting mark on the young woman.
“I don’t want to do it again,” she said. “It sucked.”
Keeping a positive attitude is challenging for Clay after the first failure. It’s hard for her to think about what her future could be like if she’s healthy once more.
“I really don’t know. We’ll see if it gets there,” Clay said.
By sharing her own experience of being a donor, Nolen hopes to inspire others to get tested.
“You can donate and still be OK. You can still just live a normal life,” Nolen said. “I was back to normal within a couple months.”
Clay doesn’t even care if she’s the recipient, she just wants people to explore donation.
“Even if you can’t donate to that person, you can still donate to somebody else to help that person out,” Clay said.
Hernandez remains hopeful that his patient will find the right donor for a second shot at life.
“Her key to a long life will be a kidney transplant,” he said.
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