OBERLIN — Sitting side-by-side at the dining room table, 42-year-old David Wilburn and 54-year-old Tracy Rachel compare T-shirts.
“I see you have your Cleveland Indians shirt on today,” Rachel said to Wilburn while showing him she, too, is wearing a Cleveland Indians shirt.
He smiles and nods.
Cheering for the same baseball team isn’t the only link between these neighbors, who live about a half- mile apart on Garfield Road.
In May, Rachel will give her neighbor a new lease on life when she donates one of her kidneys to him.
This will be Wilburn’s fifth, and hopefully final, kidney transplant.
Kidney defect at birth
David Wilburn has not had an easy life since his birth. “He was born with a kidney defect,” said his mother, Frieda Jackson.
Wilburn was born with a condition called bilateral hydronephrosis, which occurs when urine is unable to drain from the kidney into the bladder.
“He had two kidneys, but they were corkscrew-shaped and he had kinks in the ureters,” Jackson said.
When Wilburn was 2 years old, he underwent the first surgery on his kidneys.
“They were not sure what was going on, so it was exploratory. Not much could be done but to straighten out the kinks and watch, hoping for improvement,” Jackson said. “It still got worse, only not as fast. They told me that without the surgery he probably would not live to be 6.”
Since then, he has endured 131 additional surgeries.
His first official kidney transplant took place when he was 12, and the donor kidney came from his mother.
“Overnight, he was a different child. It was the first time he wasn’t sick. He was bouncing around the hospital room. He was just so full of energy,” Jackson recalled.
Wilburn’s body rejected the kidney about a year after the transplant. Yet during that time, Jackson marveled at her son’s growth spurt of two inches and his new outlook on life.
“He felt wonderful,” she said.
Wilburn later received three additional kidneys from cadavers.
“We had to be on alert for a phone call at any time, day or night,” Jackson said.
Wilburn’s body also rejected the second and third kidneys. The fourth kidney died after Wilburn caught a lung infection while he was working as a registered nurse.
As of today, Wilburn does not have a set of kidneys in his body. The place where his kidneys should be has been vacant for almost four years.
“I am on dialysis three days a week,” he said.
A compatible match
After the fourth kidney stopped functioning, Wilburn was apprehensive to receive another kidney.
But he questioned his own life.
“I couldn’t tolerate having a life on dialysis,” Wilburn said. “I am an RN and haven’t worked in several years and I miss it, but I will go back. I have been a patient my whole life.”
Four years ago, at about the time Wilburn lost his fourth kidney, Rachel was sitting inside the Church on the North Coast listening to a husband and wife talk about paired kidney exchange. This type of exchange, or kidney swap, occurs when a living kidney donor is incompatible with the recipient, and so exchanges kidneys with another donor/recipient pair who are compatible.
Rachel was fascinated by the process.
And then, a lady at her church needed a kidney.
Rachel was tested to see if she was a match for her fellow church member, but she was not.
Yet, she never gave up hope that one day she would be able to give life to another human. Nor did she know that the person she would save lived down the road.
“I saw the flier about a garage sale that would help a man who needs a kidney,” Rachel said.
The Jackson-Wilburn families were coming together to host a garage sale with the profits benefiting David Wilburn’s kidney transplant.
“I couldn’t donate any items, but I could donate a kidney,” Rachel said.
She agreed to be tested soon after the garage sale. “I had never met David before, but we saw each other at a neighborhood picnic,” Rachel said.
Wilburn knew Rachel’s brother from high school, but still, until the she learned she was a match, the two never met face-to-face or shook hands.
Now, they consider each other “kidney-in-laws.”
What are the odds that after hundreds of people were tested from coast to coast to be a match for Wilburn, his most compatible match lived down the road and around the bend.
‘David needs a kidney’
Rachel, a petite woman with short hair, has relied on her faith and family on the journey of being a donor for Wilburn.
“I am just the right size, and I am in perfect health. I felt that God has woven a tapestry for when this is done,” the mother of two said.
Both agree that there are too many coincidences this time around for the kidney transplant to fail.
“This is gonna work, I believe that it is meant to happen,” Wilburn said.
Wilburn and Rachel are virtually the same height and weight. They are neighbors. And both are Christians.
“The heart is great, so the kidney will be great, too,” Wilburn said of Rachel.
The sacrifices Rachel will make weigh heavily on Wilburn.
“I have to ask the family to allow this to happen. She has to take time off from work (as a case manager at the Grafton-Lorain Correctional Institute). She has to go to a strange city,” Wilburn said. “With a living donor, there are some heart-wrenching decisions.”
Wilburn and Rachel will travel to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. The facility has the incompatible kidney transplant program that Wilburn has been a part of for several years.
“I was told it would be nearly impossible for a match,” Wilburn said. “They tested potential live donors for me.”
Still, the best match was just doors away.
Rachel admitted her oldest son had a difficult time understanding why his mom would want to do this for someone she barely knew. Over time, he has understood.
“It’s really important for me for her family to be on board,” Wilburn said.
Rachel said she would not have it any other way.
“Who gets this chance? Wow, what an opportunity,” Rachel said. “I can’t focus on the ‘what if’s.’ What I know now is that David needs a kidney.”
Contact Melissa Linebrink at 329-7243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.