Big brother’s kidney donation transforms little sister’s world
Kayli Ward of Wauchula has never forgotten the day her brother, Brannon, saved her life.
It was May 7, 2003.
After developing end-stage kidney failure and enduring more than two years on dialysis, Kayli received a kidney transplant from her older brother at the age most girls get a driver’s permit.
He was 24. She was 15.
About 115,000 men, women and children in the U.S. are waiting for a lifesaving transplant—including more than 5,400 Floridians—because of a disease, trauma or birth defect that is causing one or more of their organs to fail. Unfortunately, more than 150 people die each week because the organs they need are not donated in time.
Kayli’s symptoms began as a preteen, according to her mom, Patsy Ward. It started with nausea and fatigue, progressing to an intolerance of the Florida heat that left her dizzy and faint. Unlike her fraternal twin sister, Kara, Kayli remained small for her age.
“It took the doctors years to figure out what it was,” Brannon says.
In January 2001, when Patsy took her daughter to the doctor for what she thought was the flu, blood tests revealed Kayli had end-stage kidney failure.
With only 20 percent kidney function, Kayli began peritoneal dialysis at home, receiving treatments through a catheter in her abdomen.
She would eventually need a kidney transplant.
Doctors never determined why her kidneys stopped working.
“When I was on dialysis, I couldn’t go to school,” Kayli says.
Teachers sent work home, daily at first, but as her symptoms increasingly eroded her concentration and energy, a teacher began visiting the Ward home to give Kayli the lessons.
The side effects of dialysis also affected the growth of the bones in Kayli’s legs, causing severe pain and increased immobility. Eventually, she needed a wheelchair to get around.
Patsy says it was emotional watching her daughter struggle mentally and physically every day.
“We tried to do as many normal things as possible to help distract from the reality of the situation,” Patsy says. “Kayli was the kind of kid who really adapted. It made her the person who she is today.”
Soon after Kayli began dialysis, her parents were tested as potential kidney donors. They were determined not to be candidates, so Kayli was put on the national waiting list for a kidney.
“I did worry,” Patsy admits. “However, her day-to-day issues always seemed to take precedence and keep me focused. It seemed like there just wasn’t enough time to worry about tomorrow or the next day. From day one, I knew that I had to be strong and keep it together for Kayli. I could tell that her strength came from me and my reaction to some of the conversations with her doctors and nurses.”
After about two years, Kayli developed a serious infection in her abdomen and could no longer receive home dialysis. Patsy began driving her to a hemodialysis center in St. Petersburg three times a week.
The nearly four-hour treatments coupled with the 140-mile roundtrip commute meant long days for a sick child and a mom struggling to hold down a job while caring for her daughter.
“The doctors said we had to find a kidney donor soon because Kayli was getting worse,” Patsy says.
More than 80 percent of patients on the national waiting list are in need of a kidney transplant. The average wait is three to five years.
After talking with one of Kayli’s dialysis nurses who had donated a kidney to her own mother, Patsy decided to ask Brannon if he would consider becoming a donor for his sister. Kara was still a minor.
“I had to be assured that it would be safe for Brannon, since that was something I had considered as a last resort,” she says.
Brannon says he considered it “a no brainer.”
“It was my sibling,” he says. “I said, ‘Absolutely. Sign me up.’”
Despite being a willing donor, Brannon had to undergo testing and evaluation to make sure he was physically and emotionally healthy enough to donate a kidney. The process took nearly three months.
About 6,000 adults in the U.S. acted as live donors in 2017, donating a kidney, lung, or a portion of their liver, pancreas or intestine to others in need. Thanks to improvements in medications, living donors no longer are limited to immediate family members such as a parent, child or sibling. A spouse, friend, in-law or even stranger can also donate.
After receiving her new kidney, Kayli’s health steadily improved.
“It was like pouring water on a wilted flower,” Patsy says, describing the transformation.
Kayli went on to finish high school with her class.
Surgery on her leg a year later allowed her to walk independently again.
The siblings have developed a special bond. Kayli never fails to express her gratitude for Brannon’s generosity—especially on their anniversary.
“I always call my brother,” she says. “One year, I even gave him a Happy Kidney Anniversary cake.”
Now 30 years old, Kayli says that although she will need to manage her health and take anti-rejection medication the rest of her life, she looks and acts like “a normal person.”
“I attended college, I work full time as a store manager in Fort Meade and I have plenty of energy,” she says.
Since her transplant, Kayli shares her story to inform others about organ donation and transplantation. She and Patsy traveled to Washington, D.C., with a group from the National Kidney Foundation, where she met with congressional representatives to talk about organ transplantation and the importance of insurance coverage for recipients.
Her story has also inspired others closer to home.
“All my friends have signed up as donors,” she says.
Brannon encourages those who are considering becoming an organ donor to understand the impact it has on not only an individual, but a family and a community.
“It totally changes a person’s life,” he says. “My sister went from having to get dialysis and being unable to live a normal life. She couldn’t work. Now, she runs a business.”