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Woman saves stranger's life with her kidney and gets his heart in return. "It's crazy how it all worked. It was all planned out by God."
Ashley McIntyre and Danny Robinson got engaged at Christmas, less than a year after McIntyre heard about Robinson's plight as a 25-year-old dialysis patient and decided to donate her kidney to him, a total stranger.
"I never in a million years imagined this would happen. ... It was a whirlwind," said McIntyre, her eyes filling with tears as she held Robinson's hand in their Jeffersontown apartment. "It's crazy how it all worked. It was all planned out by God."
Theirs is a Valentine's Day tale of how compassion can save lives, bring families together and blossom into love.
Even University of Kentucky transplant experts were amazed by the couple's unique love story. Putting their romance aside, only 1 percent of living kidney donations are from strangers, said UK Transplant Coordinator Todd Maynard. Overall in Kentucky last year, there were 135 kidney transplants, 33 involving living donors — so Maynard said the couple's transplant was likely one of the only live donations between strangers across the state.
And with more than 100,000 Americans waiting for kidneys alone, McIntyre and Robinson hope their story inspires people to consider donating their organs.
"I know being a living organ donor is not possible for a lot of people," McIntyre said. "But it's something to just think about. And even if it's not an option, people can put on their license that they will donate" after death. "It's just kind of a human thing, something (to) do for another person that could change their life."
GIFT OF LIFE
McIntyre didn't realize how much her gift would change her own life as well.
She first learned about Robinson from her mom, Kim McIntyre, who heard Robinson's mother talking about his need for a kidney on the WHAS Radio show "Terry Meiners & Co." while driving from Nashville to Louisville in mid-January of last year.
Robinson had been diagnosed at age 16 with IgA nephropathy, which occurs when an antibody lodges in the kidneys, causing inflammation that gradually damages kidney function. "I was on dialysis three days a week, four hours a day," said Robinson, an electrician. Family members offered to donate their kidneys, but "nobody matched," he said, so he spent two years on the transplant waiting list.
Robinson's story touched McIntyre deeply. "He was so young" and had lost his father to cancer, she said. "It was devastating."
The next day, she sent a Facebook message to Meiners and soon got in contact with representatives from UK's transplant program. She began undergoing a battery of blood tests and urine tests, plus an EKG and a psychosocial review. For each step in the pre-transplant testing, "it was just one match after another," Kim McIntyre said. "I thought, 'This can't be coincidence.' "
Maynard said their kidneys were "a match but not a perfect match. ... A perfect match is very rare, 1 out of 100,000."
What did match perfectly were their personalities — although they didn't know it then. McIntyre didn't want to meet Robinson until after she was sure the transplant would happen for fear of disappointing him or his family. But she said when the procedure was "almost set in stone," they and their relatives agreed to meet at a local Cheesecake Factory restaurant.
"We all clicked immediately," she said. "They told me I would always be a part of their family."
McIntyre, 26, said she could tell Robinson was a "really nice person" and "a good guy." Robinson said he already knew she was good and generous.
For the next month or so, they talked on the phone and texted back and forth. They hung out at fundraisers others held to help pay their expenses during their time off from work for the transplant. Friends joked that they should start dating, but they worried it would complicate things if the transplant didn't work out. And for a few days, McIntyre said it looked like it might not: Doctors found something in an artery leading to her kidney that looked like it might be a problem. But ultimately, it wasn't.
So at 5 a.m. April 17, they both arrived at UK for the double procedure. They were placed in pre-op rooms side by side.
NEW KIDNEY, NEW LIFE
Dr. Malay Shah, the transplant surgeon, said there were no complications in either operation. McIntyre was young and healthy, and except for his kidney disease, Robinson was too. The operations left her with one kidney and him with three — his two non-functional ones and hers working beside them.
"Everything went great," Shah said. "There were no real issues whatsoever."
McIntyre stayed in the hospital for 3 1/2 days, Robinson for five. She visited his room twice. They talked, laughed and signed one another's blue-and-white, kidney-shaped hospital pillows. He wrote on hers: "Words cannot express how much (you've) done for me." His family also gave her a musical jewelry box engraved with the words: "Ashley, you're an angel."
Shah said Robinson will have to take anti-rejection drugs from now on, but the transplant has given him an otherwise normal life. While the average lifespan for someone on dialysis is 15 years, Shah said, the lifespan for someone with a kidney transplant is at least 25 to 30 years, and "my expectation is he'll live longer than that."
As for McIntyre, Shah said donating her kidney didn't affect her ability to live a completely normal life.
When the two got out of the hospital, they stayed in close touch, beginning a romantic relationship after a Memorial Day family barbecue. McIntyre said it grew serious quickly. "It was really clear early on that this was 'it,' " she said.
She eventually became pregnant; she's due June 9 with a girl they will name Berkli. She went on bed rest because of a problem with her cervix and took temporary leave from her customer service job. Robinson, now 26, took the next step in moving their relationship forward.
"On Christmas Day, we went to my mom's and started opening gifts," he said. "I told her I'd forgotten one and pulled out a small box" with an engagement ring. He got on his knees and asked her to marry him.
SHE SAID YES.
The couple is now planning their future. They haven't yet set a date for the wedding but are looking forward to meeting their daughter, buying a home and eventually having more babies.
McIntyre said living with one kidney has been no different than living with two. A 4-to-5-inch scar is the only visible reminder of the surgery. Robinson said he has 10 times the energy he had before the transplant.
"I feel great, better than I've ever felt," he said. "I have more of a life."
And by giving away a part of herself, McIntyre does too.