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Indiana woman who donated kidney weds organ recipient

Thursday, October 24, 2013 - 5:24 pm

BROWNSBURG — Kyle Froelich had heard it before — nearly 100 times from well-meaning friends and family in kind gestures that ultimately never panned out.

His diseased kidneys were slowly failing him. One after another, people offered to donate one of theirs. But those good intentions — always foiled, never the right match — no longer raised his hopes.

It was his senior year at Brownsburg High School, the last year the doctors thought he would live, when he met a girl with a brand-new Camaro at a car show.

He and his best friend tagged along with her to the carwash. She let him drive the Camaro; he ended up scuffing one of the rims.

Chelsea Clair, then 22, had never met Kyle Froelich, then 19. But she had heard his story through a family friend and had already volunteered to help raise awareness for his cause.

On that very first day they met, without really knowing why or what it would mean, she said to him: "I'm going to give you my kidney."

Froelich didn't think the outcome would be different from anyone else who had offered. Then, a month later, the test results came back.

"We ended up being almost a perfect match," she said.

Why would someone volunteer to give an organ to a stranger?

Clair still can't say what made her do it.

"Chelsea," her family told her, "you can't just go to Wal-Mart and buy a kidney."

She had never had surgery in her life — never even needed a stitch.

But maybe it was because her dad had needed a bone marrow transplant and never got one before he died.

Maybe it was because she would have wanted somebody to do the same for her.

In the United States this year, 110,000 names wait on a list for a new kidney to do what theirs cannot do. In Indiana, it typically takes three to five years for a hopeful patient to get a transplant, said Dr. William C. Goggins, kidney transplant surgical director at IU Health.

Most will receive a kidney from a deceased donor. But the better option is to find a healthy kidney from a living donor, Goggins says — and that's becoming easier to do.

Minimally invasive laparoscopic surgery leaves smaller scars and shortens recovery time. Improved anti-rejection medicines also allow more unrelated donors to match.

"We are seeing more and more people come forward who want to donate kidneys," Goggins said. "People have just heard about it more and more. More people say: 'Hey, that's something I've always wanted to do. I've always wanted to help somebody.' "

This year, there have been 3,439 kidney transplants from living donors and 4,785 from deceased donors, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, which tracks transplants in the United States.

Thanks to a duplicate design in the human body, a person is usually born with two kidneys but needs only one. The fist-sized organs sit next to the spine and filter poisons from blood.

Goggins says studies have shown those who donate kidneys overwhelmingly say afterward they would do it again if they could, even if they had complications.

"That's amazing, huh?" he said. "It's a testament to the type of people that are willing to donate and go through with it. ... Donors are special people."

About six months after they met, Froelich picked up Clair for the trip to IU Health University Hospital.

She didn't say a word in the car. Froelich yelled with excitement and sang in the shower after finishing one last round of dialysis at home.

He was 12 when the urine screen for his sports physical hinted at kidney disease. He was 17 when he went on dialysis. He was 18 when he started looking for a transplant.

By now, at 19, his kidneys had almost completely stopped working. His body retained water, ballooning to twice the size he was supposed to be. He couldn't move. He couldn't breathe. He felt like he was about to throw up all the time. He was weak. He was tired. He was pale.

"Imagine the sickest you've been," he said. "Times it by 10."

After a long struggle to find the right donor, an inexplicable impulse to do a good deed would finally make a sick kid healthy again. But for his near-perfect match, the act of generosity turned out not to be so simple.

Clair's mom had watched a video of a kidney transplant online. It scared her. That wasn't what she wanted for her daughter.

But Clair had already made up her mind. The standoff temporarily drove a wedge between them.

"I felt," Clair said, "like I had nobody." Nobody but Froelich.

At the hospital together, talking about anesthesia made Clair panic and run into the bathroom.

She was supposed to go into surgery first, across the hall from Froelich, so the doctors could transfer the kidney between them. When it was time, Clair flung her arms around Froelich and held on.

"Please don't let go," she said.

Doctors removed Clair's left kidney and planted it inside Froelich's abdomen. In its new home, the kidney started working right away.

When she woke up, she asked, "Is Kyle OK?"

When he woke up, he asked, "How's Chelsea?"

Immunosuppressant drugs worked to keep Froelich's body from rejecting the kidney, but the medications also meant he had to be isolated to prevent infection.

On his way to recovery, he pleaded and persuaded the nurses to wheel him past Clair. Even though she was still too woozy to notice, he just wanted to wave at her through the window.

It's hard to pinpoint when they fell in love.

The beginning of their story — that first promise on the first day they met, Sept. 12, 2009 — was complicated because Clair was going through a divorce.

They weren't officially together until after the transplant.

Sitting at their kitchen table in Danville four years later, they don't have the words to describe how it happened.

He had gone with her to every screening test she had to take, just so she wouldn't be alone — the blood work, the psychological evaluation, the full-body scan.

She had texted him every time a doctor called, arranging to meet up so she could tell him in person that she was one step closer to giving him her kidney.

"There's a bond that no one else, unless they've done it, can know," said Froelich, now 23. "She's my best friend."

"He's carrying around my kidney," said Clair, now 26. "I have to make sure he takes care of that."

He lets her tell their story but jumps in whenever a slightly blurry fact needs to be corrected, his green eyes a little brighter when he looks at her.

Without her, he says, "I would probably in all honesty still be looking for a kidney."

"I didn't realize how bad I felt," he adds, "until I felt good again."

Their lives have stitched together in a yellow house with green shutters, with love notes tucked into lunches or hidden on cellphones, with two dogs and now two children. Along with Clair's daughter, 6-year-old Aby, the couple have an 11-month-old son, Wyatt, who — like Froelich — yells just to know his own voice.

When Froelich drives her crazy, Clair sometimes teases, "I'm going to take that kidney back." Or she jumps away from his playful grabs: "Don't! That's my one good kidney."

Every year, they use the anniversary of the transplant as an excuse to throw a party known as Sparkypalooza — because the kidney somehow got named Sparky. For the party, she draws an outline on a T-shirt of the kidney she gave away.

What worries her now is that Froelich will likely need a new kidney in 30 to 40 years — and she doesn't have another to spare.

But that's something they can figure out together.

On Oct. 12, signs with cut-out hearts led about 50 guests to the Danville Conservation Club. There, nearly four years after Clair first met Froelich at that car show, and three years after she gave him the kidney that would save his life, they were married.

Instead of the traditional promise to love "in sickness and in health," the couple pledged to each other, "I offer you my hand, my heart and my soul, as I know they will be safe with you."

In attendance was Clair's mother, once scared by her daughter's big gesture but in the end unsurprised by her daughter's generosity.

Froelich's aunt, Kathy Hall, led the ceremony as the minister. She recounted how many of Froelich's family and friends had been tested as potential donors to no avail.

And then came the girl who never wavered from her altruistic act. A girl who knew what she wanted to do all along.