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One-of-a-kind lesson in friendship

Susan Notes:

I'm speechless.

By Lolly Bowean

There are days when Brandon Shafer is just too busy with his 6th-grade duties to stop in and chat with his teacher from two years ago, Patricia Donahue.

But when he does have time, he'll bounce into her classroom and assure the Oster-Oakview School teacher that he's full of energy, doing his work and, yes, taking good care of his new kidney.

"I drink a lot of water and take my medication on time," the 12-year-old said. "I don't want my body to reject the kidney. Then I'll have to get another one."

Donahue, after all, has a stake in Brandon's health.

The New Lenox elementary school teacher gave him one of her kidneys in 2006 after she learned he suffered from polycystic kidney disease and needed the organ to avoid dialysis.

Donahue, now 27, was in her first year of teaching when she learned her 4th-grade pupil had a special health need that she had the genes to fulfill.

Brandon's mother wasn't compatible to give an organ to him, but Donahue was and she didn't hesitate to help.

"I just hope he uses it and takes care of it," Donahue said. "He's very aware of his body and its functions. I tell him to be careful and to tell his mom if he's not feeling well. It brings a smile to my face when I see him able to be a kid."

Since the surgery, the two have embarked on a journey that has made them as close as kin.

They've been honored at assemblies and become vocal advocates of organ donation. They traveled to Hawaii together, went snorkeling and took a helicopter ride to see a volcano, thanks to a gift from a foundation acknowledging their unique partnership.

Donahue had a day named in her honor and was recently nominated for a national award for her selfless gift to her former student.

She will learn by the end of the month if, as a state finalist, she will be one of three national winners of an Above & Beyond Citizens Honors award given by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

But more than anything, the families of Donahue and Brandon have melded together—having dinner twice a week and sharing phone calls, holidays, vacations and special occasions. And Donahue and Brandon have formed a friendship.

"She's like a sibling," Brandon said. "She's like a sister, but she's not mean."

Donahue said the same about Brandon.

"My sister teases me: 'It's the kidney that keeps on giving,' she says," Donahue said laughing. "I never expected [any] of this at all."

Donahue and Brandon's special relationship started even before they met.

On Donahue's first day of school, Brandon was the only student missing from her class, she said.

When he showed up the next day, he came in early before the rest of the class, extended his hand and introduced himself.

"He told me about his vacation," Donahue said. She was immediately impressed. She knew Brandon was ill, but he never let it stop him from doing his school work or participating in class.

On the day Brandon learned his mother wasn't a match to donate, he came to school particularly emotional, he said. He felt he could tell his teacher what was going on.

"I felt really bad," he said. "I was scared."

Donahue said she felt compelled to help.

If Brandon didn't get a donor, he'd have to do dialysis, which could weaken him and hurt his school work.

Her own father had been a recipient of a bone marrow donation, so she knew firsthand what a difference she could make.

The majority of kidney donors, however, give to relatives, said Ellie Schlam, a spokeswoman for the National Kidney Foundation. In 2006, the same year Donahue donated her kidney to Brandon, 67,120 people donated kidneys, but only 1,413 of them donated to friends or other non-relatives, according to the foundation.

Adult donations to children are common, but exact figures are not available, and most are donated by adult relatives, Schlam said.

Donahue was back at school two weeks after the surgery, but it took Brandon about a month to return to school. It takes about six weeks to fully recover from the surgery.

It wasn't until they were all stitched up and recuperating that they became friends. His family started inviting her over for dinner and to hang out.

Her family invited Brandon to the movies and to other outings. The gatherings became frequent.

Now they speak on the phone, take vacations together and are woven into each other's lives.

"She's family now," said Brandon's mother, Nandy Shafer.

"It's incredible. She stepped up and sacrificed a kidney to save his life. She'll always be a part of us," she said.

These days at school, Donahue doesn't see Brandon like she used to. He's in another part of the building, but he swings by for a quick hello and to let her know how busy he is.

As she listens to him go on about his workload and balancing extra-school activities, Donahue just grins, she said.

"He shows you how strong you can be," she said. "Especially . . . to never complain or ask for special treatment."

Brandon's new kidney should be fine if he takes care of his health, but even with a new kidney, his condition could affect other organs later on, Shafer said.

"You always have a special bond as a teacher with your first set of kids," Donahue said. "But I consider Brandon more family than anything. We've taken a step that takes our bond to a different level."

— Lolly Bowean
Chicago Tribune



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