On the sixth of every month, Millie Wright gets a little gift, usually a pair of earrings, from her older sister, Barbara Honey. She has received a gift every month for 13 years, a regular thank you and reminder of March 6, 1998, the day Millie gave Barbara a kidney.
For the 10th anniversary of Millie's gift, Barbara gave her a pair of silver Tiffany earrings in the shape of two kidneys. Millie says she must have a hundred other pairs.
Theirs is a family cursed by a genetic fluke that can kill. But they are also a family blessed with the capacity to save one another.
On Wednesday, their grown-up children began their own tradition.
Barbara's son, Christopher, suffers from the same kidney disease his mother had.
Millie's daughter, Kelly, is a perfect donor match.
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Polycystic kidney disease has long devastated their Pinellas County family. It's carried by a gene. In families that have it, half the children typically are afflicted. That's why Barbara and Christopher have it, and Millie and Kelly don't.
They can go down the family tree and cite lost loved ones, generation by generation. In 1975, it was Barbara and Millie's mother. She was just 56. At the time, they didn't even know what it was that killed her. They called it "Mama's Kidney Problem."
When the gene was identified and kidney transplants were perfected, Millie made a vow that if any family member ever needed a kidney, she would donate.
"I always said, 'Whoever needs it first can have it.' "
Barbara was first.
Thirteen years ago, they were both operated on at Tampa General Hospital. The surgery in those days was grueling. The incision was 10 inches long, from back to front. Surgeons had to break her ribs. "They used to cut you in half," Millie says.
But the transplant was a success.
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At the time, Millie's daughter, Kelly, was 32. Barbara's son, Christopher, was 23. They had grown up together. Millie's family was in Safety Harbor, and Barbara's was in Dunedin.
Christopher had been diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease when he was just a child. It never slowed him down. The family likes to brag that he was always brilliant — a bookworm. He managed the disease well enough to succeed in college, find work as a political consultant in Washington, D.C., and get himself engaged.
But the family always knew that someday he'd need a transplant.
His cousin Kelly waited for the day.
Kelly is 44 now. She has a daughter. She takes care of an ailing father-in-law in Seminole. She nursed her Aunt Barbara back to health in her home after her transplant. At the time, the idea of one sister saving the other had left her in awe. She made a promise to Christopher that when the time came, she would be there for him.
Christopher never asked. He never even liked to talk about the disease — what he called his "Sword of Damocles." But Kelly always reminded him she had reserved a kidney for him. She told him that with her kidney he'd no longer be a vegetarian. She's a dedicated carnivore. She promised to buy him Omaha Steaks for Christmas.
Christopher almost waited too long. He put off consideration of surgery until last fall when he got sicker and needed dialysis.
"Kelly finally put a cherry bomb under his behind," said her mother, Millie.
"I'm going to be really p-----," Kelly told her cousin, "if you just sit in your apartment until you die."
That worked. The two went in for blood tests.
Kelly proved to be the best donor candidate. She had Christopher's blood type, and she didn't smoke. She also got some good news: Surgeons no longer have to cut people in half to take out a kidney. Her surgeon would go through the navel. A Band-Aid would cover the incision.
It's also good news that no one else in the family has the disease. There are no others waiting for transplants.
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The surgery was performed Wednesday at the University of Maryland Transplant Center. Just before surgery, Kelly said she was still in awe — "I'm overwhelmed that I can give Christopher something that will make him better."
Her surgeon described her operation as "positively boring." Christopher's was much more difficult, hours longer and involved a lot of bleeding. His diseased kidneys were grossly enlarged.
But when Kelly's kidney was attached to him, it began to function immediately.
Christopher has been hiding a surprise for her. It's the first of a lifetime of gifts to come, each one to be presented on the second day of every month.
It's a necklace from Tiffany's — with a silver pendant in the shape of a kidney.
John Barry can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2258.