Mar/Apr
2017

The Beauty of Giving and Receiving: Stylists Embrace the Gift of Life through Kidney Transplants

Written by Trish Amundson Photography by Dawn Sanborn Photography
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The month of March—National Kidney Month—calls attention to kidney disease, raising awareness about kidney health, prevention of kidney disease and lifesaving treatments. It’s the perfect time to learn more about the need for organ donors and transplant options. For local hair stylists and 15-year colleagues Katie Chapman and Sonja Kalis, it’s an opportunity to reflect on their experience of giving and receiving the gift of life.

PREPARING FOR THE WORST

Three years ago, Sonja was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and told she would need a kidney transplant. “I thought it would be many years down the road,” she recalls. “But 18 months later, they told me I had to have it sooner rather than later.” 

The seriousness of her medical situation became more real than ever before. Her name went on the transplant list, a long list of individuals waiting for a kidney from a deceased donor. Unfortunately, many patients with kidney failure end up on dialysis before they reach the top of the list—before a transplant is possible. 

ASKING FOR A KIDNEY

Sonja had to find a living donor but wasn’t sure where to start. She considered making a public appeal for a kidney by writing on her vehicle windows with neon markers. Then she decided to share her story at the salon where she works, where co-workers and clients are like a second family. “My husband helped put a flyer together,” she says, “and I hung it in the lunchroom.” 

Hi, 

My name is Sonja Kalis. I have been a Hair Stylist here at J.C. Penney for over 30 years. In January of 2014 I was diagnosed with a kidney disease called IGA Nephropathy that has attacked both of my kidneys. I was told that at some time in the future I would need a transplant and thought it would be something like 10 years or more down the road. Imagine my surprise when I was told at a recent checkup that I needed one very soon or could face dialysis. Most of my immediate family members are insulin-dependent diabetics and have been denied as donor possibilities. Currently the kidney transplant waiting list is three to six years. If you know of anyone that has mentioned or talked about being a donor and would like more information please write down the number and web address below and pass it on to them. This is not an easy thing for me to ask, but my options are getting somewhat limited due to the time frame. Please keep me in your prayers.

Sincerely,  
Sonja Kalis

Sonja’s flyer included a Mayo Clinic website and phone number to learn more about living-donor kidney transplant.

A BAWLING MOMENT

Sonja’s son and brother were tested as well as a fellow stylist, Elaine—all in hopes of donating a kidney to Sonja. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to do so because of incompatible blood types or antibodies. Co-worker Katie also was tested at Mayo Clinic. “I didn’t know you could donate a living kidney,” she says. “I saw the flyer in the lunchroom and realized how urgent this was. I told my husband ‘Sonja needs a kidney, and I’m going to get tested.’” 

Although Katie wasn’t a match either, she learned she could still help Sonja, who would soon begin dialysis four hours a day, three days a week. Rather than a kidney donation directly to Sonja, she could donate her kidney to a compatible recipient, which would result in Sonja receiving a kidney from a compatible living donor in much shorter time. “I remember being in the lunchroom at work, and Katie came flying up the steps to tell me,” says Sonja. “We both had a bawling moment.”

KIDNEY PAIRED DONOR PROGRAM

“I was most excited to make sure Sonja got a kidney, but other people got better from my kidney donation too,” said Katie. 

“Mayo Clinic’s Kidney Paired Donor Program began in 2007 at the urging of a patient who wanted to donate to his father but his blood type did not match,” says Mikel Prieto, M.D., Mayo Clinic transplant surgeon. “He was aware that paired donation was happening at other centers and motivated us to find a way to make it work. Transplants with living donors have shown longer patient and kidney survival outcomes compared with a deceased-donor transplant.”

At Mayo, all transplant patients receive information about the program during their evaluation. “Our internal Paired Donation Program includes Mayo Clinic in Florida, Arizona and Rochester, Minnesota,” explains Dr. Prieto. “This enables us to have increased numbers of donors to match. We successfully have transplanted
241 patients with a living donor who otherwise may not have had that opportunity.” 

After thorough testing and planning, Mayo Clinic Transplant Center coordinated transplants for Sonja and Katie, along with several other donor-recipient pairings that became part of their kidney donor chain. Sonja received her new kidney on May 26, 2016, and Katie donated her lifesaving organ five days later. “The Paired Donation Program is amazing,” says Sonja. “It works!”

SUPPORT AND ENCOURAGEMENT

In addition to tremendous help from family members, their successful transplant preparations, surgeries and recoveries were made possible by the strong support of the stylists’ coworkers and clients. They thoughtfully asked questions and provided encouragement, and one client offered insight as a dialysis patient herself. “Our clients waited patiently for us to return to work—they are precious,” says Sonja. 

Other stylists covered client needs during their medical leaves. An entire month was allotted for kidney disease awareness at the salon. Stylists from a nearby store sent gift cards, and all the stores in the district held fundraisers. Moreover, a framed recognition piece was presented and is now displayed at the Rochester salon, which includes a message from both the CEO and the executive vice president of stores. 

In addition to raising awareness and funds, J.C. Penney shared the employee story in the salon magazine, “Expert Edge,” which inspired another stylist to be a living kidney donor. “You don’t realize how far reaching this is,” says Katie. She received a call from an associate in Kansas City, who read the article and was seeking information that ultimately would give her the confidence to donate her kidney. 

LASTING BEAUTY 

Katie and her family are no strangers to helping others. In many ways, they demonstrate and encourage the importance of kidney, bone marrow and blood donation. Ironically, though, she admits to being squeamish about donating blood. 

Every day, Katie and Sonja find inspiration in the reflections of the large salon mirrors that show caring coworkers and clients by their side. The stylists reflect on the beauty and lasting impact of giving and receiving a life-saving kidney. Katie adds, “I guess we’re just kidney buddies for life.”

KIDNEY BUDDY FUN FACTS

Katie Chapman (AKA Kidney Donor)

Sonja Kalis (AKA Kidney Recipient)

Trish Amundson is a Rochester-area freelance writer, who first learned about this remarkable story of hope and healing during a haircut and highlights appointment.