At the age of eight, Joy Araujo received a brochure in the mail for a pageant. Her mom told her the only way she could compete is if she raised the $300 entry fee.
“I put on a suit and paraded around my grandma’s neighborhood to raise money,” said Araujo. 29.
Two years later – the same day as her school’s carnival – she woke up with a mysterious swelling in her eyes. Determined not to miss the carnival she grabbed a pair of sunglasses and took off with friends.
“You’re only in elementary school once in your life. I wasn’t going to miss the school carnival,” said Araujo.
That determined spirit has propelled Araujo to: Win pageants, survive kidney failure and start her own non-profit organization dedicated to living kidney donors.
“I worked for 10 years before I won my first pageant title,” said Araujo, who will compete in Miss Indiana International in Charleston W.V. August 4 and 5. “I get a thrill out of being on stage. It’s like my second home. I love it all - the evening gowns, fun fashion and fitness,” said Araujo.
She does it all while undergoing dialysis 11 hours a day, seven days a week.
“I tell people I’m lucky because I think how life would be without kidney disease. I’ve met some cool people I probably wouldn’t have otherwise met and I’m learning to make the most of every minute,” said Araujo.
Her lessons came early in life. The swelling in her eyes didn’t go away on that day she headed to her school carnival.
After undergoing a series of tests, Araujo was diagnosed with C1q Nephropathy, one of many diseases causing Nephrotic Syndrome, a kidney disease that leads to large amounts of protein lost in the urine.
For six years she was treated with rounds of steroids to try to “shock” her kidneys into working. Eventually doctors told her she would need either dialysis or a transplant.
It was during a regular visit to IU Health University Hospital that she looked at the dialysis machine and thought: “What can I do to thank all those living donors who have tried to donate a kidney for me?” It didn’t take her long to come up with the idea to start her own non-profit organization, the Donor Appreciation Network.
Again, she needed money to get the project off the ground. She entered a contest sponsored by a shaving cream manufacturer and landed the prize pot – enough start up money to fund her non-profit – and a year’s supply of shaving cream too.
“I wrote letters to every transplant doctor I knew at IU Health and my proposal was accepted,” said Araujo. Each month she delivers white boxes filled with commemorative medals, gas cards, and hand-written “thank you” notes. Transplant unit staff members distribute the boxes to donors – some boxes traveling as far away as Florida and Kansas.
Living kidney donations are when one person gives a kidney to another person. Recipients of the living kidney are often healthier than those who receive kidneys from a deceased donor. The donation can be done directly to the person in need; through a paired donation (donating to a compatible recipient in exchange for someone donating to a loved one); or through completely anonymous donation.
Araujo received a new kidney at age 16. For a time, it gave her a new lease on life. “I had the kidney for eight years, and it was the best eight years of my life. I learned to drive and I could hang out with friends. I was almost a normal teen,” said Araujo.
And she continued with the pageants – each one was a new way for her to promote organ donation and thank the donors.
But her body was slowly rejecting her new kidney. In 2013, renal disease forced her to start dialysis. Since then, she continues to wait for a new donor.
And while she waits, she focuses on each new triumph. The dialysis caused her to gain weight and she was determined to keep her five-foot frame in shape. So she started working out with a trainer and lost 60 pounds.
“Preparing for the pageants keeps me on my toes,” said Araujo, who frequently talks to others about the importance of living kidney donation. Her non-profit aims to reinforce the message that there is a current organ shortage and living donors can help decrease that shortage.
“It’s important to make every moment count because you don’t know what tomorrow brings,” said Araujo, a biblical studies major at Anderson University. One day she hopes to get an advanced degree in New Testament studies and maybe teach.
“I was afraid to do a lot of things but life isn’t about sitting on the sidelines. I’ve learned patience. I’ve wanted nothing more than a kidney but I’ve waited this long and I’ll keep waiting and I’ll keep learning and making the most of every day.”
-- By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
Reach Banes via email at T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.