The conversation that would change Terri Teas' life happened in a hallway at Providence Alaska Medical Center last spring. It started with small talk.
Teas, a retired medical office worker, was picking up some medication when she bumped into Judie Wolfe. Wolfe, a longtime medical transcriptionist, was dropping off some files. Teas and Wolfe knew each other from years before, when Teas worked in the office of Louann Feldmann, a family practice physician, and Wolfe worked for Feldmann transcribing dictation. Both Teas and Wolfe are grandmothers now. They'd always been friendly, though they never considered themselves friends.
They exchanged greetings in the hallway. Wolfe asked Teas how she was doing. Teas' story spilled out. She had kidney disease, she said. She'd recently started dialysis. She needed a kidney transplant.
"I had this knee-jerk reaction," Wolfe said, recalling this conversation to me recently. "I said, 'What's your blood type?'"
"A," Teas said.
"That's my blood type," Wolfe said.
At the time, Teas' son was going through the process to donate his kidney to his mother. It looked like he was going to be a match, Teas told Wolfe.
"If something happens," Wolfe said, "call me."
Teas' kidneys had been failing for 10 years, in part due to a congenital condition that gave her abnormally high cholesterol. Kidneys filter waste products out of the blood. As her disease worsened, Teas, who is 63, grew more and more fatigued.
"You start feeling like you've got the flu or you've been hit by a truck," she said.
Her thinking grew cloudy. Her legs itched. She couldn't sleep. She became too weak to keep up at work, so she retired earlier than she would have liked. She tried volunteering at the hospital with her therapy dog, Finn, she said, but couldn't keep up with that commitment, either.
"Sometimes I'd have such bad days, I couldn't leave the house," she said.
She started dialysis just before she ran into Wolfe that day. It helped, but didn't cure her symptoms. A dialysis machine, which works like an artificial kidney, is far less efficient than the human organ. A transplant isn't a cure either, but it had a good chance of improving many of her symptoms and prolonging her life. Without one, she was looking at losing more and more energy and eventually facing kidney failure, which would kill her.
Summer disappeared. Fall slid into winter, the snowiest on record. The darkness bothered Teas more than usual. Then came bad news: Her son had a tumor in his kidney. Doctors found it during the testing prior to the transplant. His tumor was benign, but he couldn't donate.
"I was devastated," Teas said. "It was like a black hole."
Back to the beginning. She had to find another donor.
Then she remembered that conversation with Wolfe. She had no idea if she was serious when she made the offer. But she found her number and dialed. She got an answering machine. She left a message, phrasing it as delicately as she could. Her son couldn't donate his kidney. Might Wolfe know anyone who could be a match?
Wolfe got the message when she returned days later from a trip to New Zealand. Being in the medical transcription business for 35 years, she's had an informal medical education. In fact, now that she's retired, she only keeps one client, a nephrologist, or kidney doctor. So she had a good idea what it meant to donate a kidney, and how much her donation would help Teas. She also knew that the number of patients who needed kidneys far outnumbered those willing to donate. The risks to her weren't much more than the risks of any surgery. The kidney removal surgery, done through a laparoscope, is far less invasive than it once was.
She wasn't sure what caused her to make the offer that day at Providence. But now that the prospect was real, she thought: Why not?
"This is the way I look at it: I have passed my milestones. ... I've had love relationships, I went to my proms, I've had friendships, I've had children, I've been overseas. I've had a good life. After all that, it's just slush," she said. "I didn't feel that way at 25, but at almost 70, every day I wake up is a gift."
She called Teas. She also got an answering machine. She left a message. She was on board.
Both of them knew that Wolfe's willingness to donate is only a piece of the process. Next there are a battery of tests. And as a possible donor, Wolfe had at least one major hurdle from the outset. She is 69. That's old to have kidneys healthy enough to donate, she said. Teas wasn't sure it would work out for that reason. She kept up the search for other donors.
In the meantime, Wolfe started her tests. Each time Wolfe took one, she passed. Her blood sugar was normal but on the high side, so she started going to Planet Fitness in the Northway Mall three times a week. (She also transcribed for years for an endocrinologist, a diabetes specialist, so she knew exercise would normalize her blood sugar, she said.) One of the last major tests was a cardiac stress test. Wolfe had to walk on a treadmill, getting her heart rate up. The gym time paid off, she said. She wowed the nurse giving her the test.
"I blew the dust off my peer group," she said.
Her kidneys, it turned out, were unusually healthy despite her age. She was cleared to donate. When Teas got the news, via her transplant nurse, she had to let it sink in. She felt so grateful to Wolfe, a friendly person from her past who she barely knew, she said.
"I thought, "Oh, my God," she said. "I felt blessed. It had been such a long haul."
Getting cleared to donate, for Wolfe, felt like an accomplishment in itself. She's excited to go through with the procedure and to watch Teas improve. She's also a little nervous, she said. Who wouldn't be?
"I believe we all come here with a purpose," she told me. "This is mine."
Since they got the news the transplant will go forward, they have been working out together a few times a week at the Northway Mall. Now, they told me, they consider themselves friends.
The two women go Swedish Medical Center in Seattle on Oct. 2. The transplant is scheduled for Oct. 8.