Two Best Friends, One Complete Stranger, Two Lives Saved

Two women, friends since junior high, lived just a mile apart. They were the inseparable type of friends. So bonded that even their jobs didn't take them apart.

Two women, one a school counselor, the other a speech pathologist worked right across the hall from each other at an elementary school.

Theirs was what true, deep, intense friendships are made of.

But even they didn't know how deep until a complete stranger entered their lives and turned their worlds upside down.

***

Their names are Deb Rhodes and Kelley Phillips, two women who had been helping kids for more than three decades --  Rhodes as a school counselor and Phillips as a speech pathologist.

Both were in great health. Both were ready to relax, to enjoy a carefree life, to do the kinds of things retired friends do. Road trips and long lunches. Neverending phone calls. 

But just two months before she was to retire from Fairview Elementary in Sherwood, Ohio, Phillips fell to her knees in her kitchen, the pain unbearable. It was completely out of the blue. She had walked three miles that day. She had felt great. She was making dinner before heading off to the high school musical that night with her husband.

The excruciating pain radiated from her back. She couldn't get up. Still on her knees, she crawled to her bedroom.

Phillips found out days later that she had end stage renal disease. Her right kidney was in complete failure, with no chance of coming back. Her left kidney was failing, too. Doctors said dialysis was the only chance to keep her alive.

"I think it's the saddest I've ever been," Phillips said. "I was an emotional wreck. I was one sick, sad lady."

And then, just as she was feeling her lowest, Rhodes was there for Phillips again, as she always had been. Rhodes told her: "Whatever you need, anything you need, I am here for you."

Phillips had no idea at the time just how far Rhodes would take that promise.

***

She woke up in the wee hours of the morning three days a week, every week. Never mind that Rhodes had already retired and should have been enjoying late mornings in bed. She got up, picked Phillips up and had her to dialysis by 5:30 a.m. 

She saw firsthand how sick the treatments made Phillips, how rundown she was, how her energy was zapped.

"That was very shocking for me. That was really hard to watch," Rhodes said. "She's a pretty strong woman and it about did her in. It just broke my heart."

Phillips would need a kidney transplant. It was her only chance of getting off dialysis. Rhodes' heart broke again when she found out she wasn't a match to be her friend's donor.

But instead of waiting around for Phillips to move up the list to get a donor kidney, which doctors said could be five years, Rhodes, Phillips and a group of friends went to work to find a living donor. They printed fliers that were handed out at local churches, golf courses and schools. 

The fliers included photos of Phillips and told her story bluntly: "I need a kidney transplant as soon as possible. A kidney transplant will save my life." There was a number to call Indiana University Health, where Phillips wanted to get her transplant surgery.

Phillips took the fliers to a county fair in Ohio. She stood at a booth handing them out to people passing by. She wasn't asking them to be a donor, just to pass her information on.

"I always felt like if I could get it in their hands, I had half a chance," Phillips said.

But she had more than half a chance. One of those fliers landed in the hands of a complete stranger, who looked in Phillips' eyes and spoke briefly to her.

"I remember her saying, 'I'll prayerfully consider this,'" Phillips said.

By early the next morning, that complete stranger had already called IU Health. She had made her decision.

She was ready to donate her kidney to Phillips.

***

What? Rhodes didn't get it. A complete stranger was willing to give up her kidney for some woman she didn't even know. Someone she saw for a few moments at a county fair?

"I couldn't quite wrap my head around that," Rhodes said. 

Very soon, though, the impact of that complete stranger started mounting. As Rhodes watched Phillips undergo surgery in September. As she watched her dear friend come back to life, be vibrant again.

This complete stranger had saved her best friend's life.

Rhodes started thinking. She was willing to donate a kidney to Phillips. Why stop just because she wasn't a match for her?

"I just had this nudging," Rhodes said. "I think it was God nudging me a little bit."

And with that, she made a decision that her best friend never saw coming.

***

There was silence on the other end of the phone. Rhodes had decided that Phillips would be the first person she would tell.

"I just want you to know that you have been amazing and you have really impacted me," Rhodes said into the phone. "And I want you to know I'm going to move forward and be a donor."

Phillips was speechless on the other end. Sobbing.

"I was so incredibly proud. I was honored that she said she was doing this because of me," Phillips said. "It was an incredible phone call. I just sat there and shook my head. It's like the branch of a tree and it's just growing and growing."

Tina Nash sat inside her hospital room at IU Health University Hospital on Sunday. She had just received a kidney in the same place Phillips did. And like Phillips, Nash couldn't believe a complete stranger would be so kind.

Then, Rhodes walked into her room. The two women hugged. They cried. Nash kissed Rhodes on the cheek. Rhodes embraced Nash's husband, Steve.

"It was a powerful, emotional time," Rhodes said. Giving that kidney made her feel "very filled and content."

It's hard to believe the power of a friendship and the kindness of a complete stranger led to another woman's life being saved.

"Most people say, 'How can you do this for a complete stranger?'" Rhodes said. "I think, maybe this is the reason I didn't match Kelley. So two lives could be saved."

-- By Dana Benbow, Senior Journalist at IU Health.
Reach Benbow via email dbenbow@iuhealth.org or on Twitter @danabenbow


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