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West Virginia woman donates kidney to younger sister

By BREANNA FRANCIS, The Journal

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. (AP) — Sisters Courtney Howard and Shannon Walker, of Inwood, have been and continue to be the very best of friends.

According to younger sister Howard, she and Walker were so close, in fact, that they had made a pact with one another in their youth that would bind them far beyond the sibling DNA they shared.

“When I was 12 and Shannon was 18, our mom needed a kidney transplant,” Howard explained. “She was born with polycystic kidney disease that progressed and forced her to have both kidneys removed and replaced with a match from our uncle when she was only 39. Shannon and I watched all of this happen and made a pact right then that, should either of us carry this disease, we would do whatever we could to help, including giving the other our kidney.”

An unfortunate foreshadowing, Howard said it was in her 20s that she discovered she, too, carried the disease, while her sister did not.

It was not until her 40s that symptoms began presenting themselves, manifesting in severe pains and a rapid drop in her kidney function. The sisters began having to consider the real possibility that their childhood pact might have to become a reality.

“I was 6 when Courtney was born, and I remember every single detail of that day. It was one of the most exciting days of my life,” Walker said. “We squabbled as kids do, but when our mom got sick, our relationship solidified. We were each other’s rock and always have been. Everyone says what I did was selfless, but honestly, there was no doubt in my mind that this was what I was going to do the second we found out. Anything I could do to help improve her life was well worth the time, energy and sacrifice, because all I wanted was for her to be better.”

With her situation deteriorating quickly and her sister’s dedication to fulfilling their pact clear, Howard said she and her sister went for testing at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington D.C., and Walker was tested to gauge her possible kidney transplant compatibility.

“And just a few weeks later, we were told that Shannon was a perfect 6-out-of-6 marker tissue match,” Howard said. “We were so excited.”

In working to address Howard’s kidney disease, she said her doctor told her about a research study which involved transplanting bone marrow, along with the kidney from her sister, in hopes of better supporting the transplant process and allowing Howard to get off of the immunosuppressants completely instead of having to take them for the rest of her life, as is typical of a standard kidney transplant.

Excited for the chance to create an even greater quality of life for Howard, Walker began the injection process in July 2020, which consisted of medical injections over the course of four days that would force her body to produce more bone marrow for the transplant.

Just a few months later, on Oct. 5, Walker and Howard went under the knife, where Walker had both of her football-sized kidneys removed and received one of her sister’s kidneys.

After 10 doses of radiation to ensure her sister’s kidney could settle in, Howard said 10 days after her initial transplant, she then received her sister’s bone marrow transplant, as well.

Howard said as of March 29, at her six-month check-up appointment, her tests showed she was doing great with her sister’s kidney and bone marrow, and, should this positive trend continue, she would be able to wean off of immunosuppressants completely.

With a normal immune system and a normal lifespan, a feat she dedicates entirely to her sister’s selflessness, Howard said she couldn’t even begin to describe how much her sister’s love and support has meant throughout the entire process.

“We live right down the street from each other, spend a lot of our time together, and now, I tell her that between the two of us, we are 120% Shannon and 80% Courtney,” Howard laughed. “And I don’t mind, because I can’t even begin to describe how grateful I am. She gave me a second chance at life, so to be at a point where I could barely get out of bed, because I was so sick, to being able to jump on the trampoline and go for long walks and feel good and enjoy life all, because she was so selfless, it was indescribable how grateful I am to her for that. I feel amazing, and it’s all because of her selflessness. I really don’t know what I would do without her.”

To Walker, her gift of health to her sister had not even required a second thought. Childhood pact or not, Walker said she was just happy to have her vibrant sister back to her normal self, adding that the extra months of work and pain were all worth it in the end to see Howard smiling again.

“It is beyond exciting that she is feeling better and that I could help,” Walker said. “I am so grateful we were able to be a part of this study. It’s just… I don’t know how to put it into words. I’m so grateful that she’s doing better and that she’s full of life again. It was so hard seeing her hurt, so it’s amazing to have my sister back and to know I was able to be a part of her healing.”

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