By Catriona Ni Aolain
Francia and I have something in common. I, too, donated my kidney to a friend, although in my case, I had only met her the day before.
Through my job as PEOPLE’s Photo Director I had learned of Ilysa Winick, a Manhattan-based mom-of-two, desperately in need of a kidney donor after contracting a near-fatal blood infection in June 2016, which caused her vital organs to shut down. Ilysa had lost her hands and feet after developing gangrene.
Although I didn’t know her personally yet, Ilysa’s story spoke to me. I lived in a nearby neighborhood, we were similar ages and we were both moms of two little blond boys. When I saw the photo of her with her family, it was like looking in the mirror. I decided to see if my kidneys were a match.
The process started with a simple blood test, and I found out at the end of June we were a match. That kicked off far more intensive testing, including a 24-hour urine collection, an electrocardiogram, CT scans and more. You also have to undergo a psychological exam.
It wasn’t until mid July that I met the kidney transplant team at Columbia Presbyterian in New York City and the surgery was officially approved and scheduled for August 9.
Once that happened everything moved very fast. I’m a very healthy and active person, but I really started to watch what I ate and drank after that first blood test. I wanted to give Ilysa the healthiest kidney possible, which meant saying goodbye to the red wine!
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The week before the operation, I experienced severe anxiety. Like most people, I hate hospitals, and I had suffered a terrible response to the anesthetic during my one other surgery, a cesarean with my oldest son. I started having flashes that I might die on the table and not wake up.
After leaving my children in Ireland to stay with my family, I flew back to the States, panicking all the way home.
The day before the surgery, however, I met with Ilysa and all my anxiety went away.
Knowing what she had suffered and how she had survived strengthened my resolve made (almost!) all my fears go away.
I had to be at the hospital at 5:30 a.m. Usually, I’m late for everything, but that morning I was the first to check in. I put my gown on and the nurse came in and checked all my vitals. My husband Svend was with me the whole time making me laugh and taking cheesy pictures of me posing in my gown and surgical hat. After meeting my surgeon, Dr. Pedro Sandoval, and my anesthesiologist (a longtime PEOPLE subscriber!) Dr. Julie Sobol, I felt very reassured. Even more so when they promised to be careful with my fake lashes!
At 7 a.m. the anesthesiologists came back to get me. The last person I saw on my way into surgery was Ilysa, and we gave each other a big hug.
The surgery lasted around six hours, and when I woke up my first thought was, “I survived!” As I became more conscious my husband came in and told me it was a success, and that the kidney had started working immediately for Ilysa. I cried and cried.
(I also felt fantastic because the drugs they give you are awesome.)
I could only drink water and ice for the first day and was kept in bed, but the next morning I got up, ate breakfast and took a walk down the hall to see Ilysa.
Two days after the surgery, I was allowed to go home. I stopped taking the painkillers soon after, and about a week later I took my first walk from our apartment to the park.
A couple of weeks after the surgery we went to visit Ilysa (who is recovering very well) and her family, we had a beautiful day together as our kids played and we sat drinking wine and sharing life stories.
Now it’s exactly five weeks after the surgery, and I’m back at work and feeling great. I have some issues with fatigue, but every day I get closer to feeling normal.
After the surgery Ilysa’s husband Steve posted an update on her condition.
Part of it read, “There are no words to describe our gratitude to the donor … her act of kindness has changed the course of Ilysa’s life forever”.
It’s hard to actually describe how good it it feels to do something like this for another person. I’m really honored to have been able to help Ilysa and her family, and if I could I would do it again in a heartbeat.
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