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In a matter of moments, Melanie Graham went from back pain to end-stage renal failure. Her story is one of multiple surgeries, the loss of a loved one and finally a new kidney named “Joy.”
Dressed in a sapphire blue dress, Melanie Graham stood at the altar of First Baptist Church in Muncie. With her father officiating, Graham exchanged wedding vows with the love of her life, Michael Graham.
The two met through a dating site around Christmastime in 2011. They were engaged four months later and married Oct. 20, 2012. Melanie was 38 and Michael was 42. It was a first marriage for both of them.
“He was the first person I met on the dating site. We both love sports and we both have a strong faith. I was addicted to him from day one. When you know, you know,” said Graham. But the day she had long dreamed about, took a turn shortly after her dad started the service. As she turned to face her guests, Graham was overcome with back pain.
“I looked at my dad and I said, ‘I can’t.’ He knew what I meant,” said Graham. There was a bench on the altar. As part of the ceremony, she was to sit on the bench while Michael washed her feet as a symbol of his devotion. As Graham grimaced in pain, her sister – one of eight bridesmaids – moved to position the bench so Graham could sit.
“It squelched my pride. I had been waiting so long for this day and then, I just couldn’t stand. I couldn’t do it,” said Graham. Her bridegroom remained calm and even joked with her. It helped ease her frustration, but not the pain.
It turned out that her wedding day was a day of reckoning for Graham. Fourteen years earlier she had been diagnosed with lupus. Extended complications followed but things seemed better until the beginning of 2012. When the back pain was at its height, Graham visited a chiropractor and got on with life. That is until her wedding day. The pain continued and about the time the couple planned a delayed honeymoon to Cancun, it was apparent that her health issues needed immediate attention.
It was Mother’s Day weekend, 2013 when Graham thought she had the flu. The couple raced to urgent care and then onto ER. A urine test showed that her kidneys were functioning at five percent.
“Over the next few days I ceased and coded and was in a coma for 72 hours. Then things started looking up a little more. I had never even heard of the term ‘dialysis’ before but I started three days a week, four hours at a time,” said Graham. She was under the care of IU Health urologist Dr. Jeffrey C. Ulrich. Her nephrologist is Dr. Swapna Katipally.
It was June 2013 and she was in end-stage renal failure. For six months she was in the hospital six times with infections. By November, she began consults with the transplant team and by December – just two days before Christmas, she underwent surgery to remove, not one but both kidneys.
“I’m a rare case. It’s mind blowing. People say, ‘there’s no way you could be functioning without kidneys,’ but I have pictures of both of them to prove it,” said Graham. “I lived and breathed dialysis.”
She also faced another challenge. She weighed 425 pounds. In order to be considered a viable candidate for a kidney transplant she needed to lose half of her weight.
“Through all of this, my husband was my strength. He was by my side encouraging me from the day we chose each other,” said Graham.
Raised in Muncie, Graham graduated from Cowan High School. Her father, Doug Gregg, is an ordained minister and together with her mother, Debbie Gregg, the couple raised three children in a close-knit faith-based home.
“I was the oldest and I was a leader. My siblings might even say I was ‘bossy.’ I was a good student but was more into having a social life. I am very extroverted and don’t like to be alone,” said Graham.
After high school she enrolled in Anderson University and completed her degree in mental health from Ivy Tech. With a burning desire to live in Atlanta she took a nanny job and moved to Georgia for 10 years.
In July of 2014, faced with the challenge to reach a healthy weight, she underwent bariatric surgery. In April of 2017 she had a second revision surgery and reached the weight necessary to be listed for a kidney transplant. A year later she was added to the transplant list.
Just as things were beginning to look up, she faced tragedy – something she feared, something she disliked – being alone.
Michael Graham was born with Mobius syndrome, a rare neurological disorder that affects muscles that control eye movement and facial expressions. Because it is so rare, there are some symptoms that have not yet been fully identified, said Graham. One of those issues is respiratory failure.
In July 2018, Michael Graham was hospitalized for 12 days. He died on Aug. 4, 2018 - a month before his wife was scheduled to receive a kidney transplant.
Sitting in her sister’s Muncie home, Graham talks about the love of her life and how that life changed without warning. She doesn’t cry. She wears a shirt with the words: “Choose Joy.” The words say a lot about who she is.
“Through marriage we chose each other. The joy comes from my faith. It is what has sustained me and it is a choice I make,” said Graham. She started her search for a kidney donor through a Facebook page, “Melanie’s Mountain, the journey to a kidney.” The page is filled with dozens of other people wearing the same “Choose Joy” t-shirt – all wishing her well as she approached her surgery. There were prayer groups at the YMCA, in school carpools, and a bible study she belonged to when she lived in Atlanta. One of those participants in the bible study saw her post on Facebook and began testing as a donor.
“She didn’t even know her blood type; she just knew that she was meant to donate her kidney to me,” said Graham, who nicknamed her friend “Sister Christian.” The Sunday before her transplant Graham’s 41-year-old friend and donor attended a prayer service led by Graham’s father. It was a moving time for Graham and her family. On September 27th Graham received a kidney from “Sister Christian” and she named that kidney, “Joy.”
“I look back and I think I have had a lot of setbacks, a lot of challenges. I’ve lost my husband at a point I’m able to live fully. I could be bitter but instead, I choose joy.”
-- By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health. Reach Banes via email email@example.com.