Not long ago, it was not uncommon for people to go to their neighbors to borrow something — a rake or maybe an egg to make a batch of cookies.
On July 24, a former Kenosha resident offered something a bit more than a cup of sugar.
On Sept. 11, Kristine Hees, 48, of Bristol, will donate one of her kidneys to her former childhood neighbor, Kaia LeMay, 38, who is in end-stage renal failure due to complications from lupus.
While all of LeMay’s family and many of her friends had gone through testing as potential kidney donors, only Hees was a match.
Hees’ connection to the LeMay family dates back to childhood when their families lived across the street from one another on Kenosha’s north side.
In an interview from the home still owned by Chuck and Lorna LeMay, the families recalled that Chuck and Hees’ father, Ron, went to high school together and later both worked at LeMay Auto.
Kristine remembered how she and her twin brother Christopher loved to hang out with the LeMay girls, Heather, Tiffany, Kaia and Erika.
Tiffany and Kaia were adopted from South Korea as infants and Kristine recalls the day they arrived home with the LeMays. “I was so excited — this was big news!” she said.
As a teenager, Kristine babysat for the younger girls, including Kaia.
“We went on vacations with the twins,” said Kaia’s older sister, Tiffany LeMay, 42. “We were like extended family.”
As the girls became adults they moved away from the neighborhood, but Kristine remained friends with Heather LeMay.
Ten years ago, Kaia was diagnosed with lupus, an inflammatory autoimmune disease that can affect the blood, skin, joints and internal organs.
In June 2018, Kaia learned that she was in end-stage renal failure and began daily dialysis and a regimen of medications.
The goal was to get Kaia onto organ transplant lists as soon as possible.
“We learned that the wait time for a transplant can be up to five years and that there is a 50 percent mortality rate for people who are on dialysis for five years,” said Tiffany. “So of course we felt there was a clock ticking.”
Although Kaia has a rare blood type, B-positive, she is a good transplant candidate, said Tiffany. “She ranked ‘a four,’ meaning she has a 96 percent chance of success with a transplant.”
On New Year’s Eve of last year Kaia was approved for the transplant wait list in the Milwaukee area; a week later she was approved for the Madison area list as well.
To increase the odds of getting a kidney sooner rather than later, the family also appealed to family and friends to get tested as potential donor matches.
“The whole family got tested, but were rejected for various reasons one by one,” said Lorna LeMay.
In December, Kristine learned about their quest via social media and went for testing.
“I thought, ‘I’ll just call to get tested, if it doesn’t happen it doesn’t happen. That’s the best I could do; if it didn’t work, it didn’t work, but at least I tried,’” Hees said.
At the end of January she underwent 14 hours of testing at Froedtert Hospital, Milwaukee. Initial results disqualified her as a compatible candidate, however, and she thought she was out of the running.
“Our blood types are not the same, they found that one of my kidneys is larger than the other and then they found a tiny kidney stone in one of the kidneys,” Kristine said.
Even after learning that these hurdles — including the mismatch of blood types — could be overcome, Kristine chose to only tell Heather that she was undergoing donor testing.
“I didn’t want to tell (Kaia) and get her hopes up. I told Heather to keep it a secret,” Kristine said.
On July 22, Kristine got the green light as a donor match and was told to inform Kaia as soon as possible so her pre-op transplant procedures could begin.
Heather quickly organized a meeting with her parents and her sisters, but kept the reason for the gathering under wraps.
“The sisters were all so curious what this meeting could be about. They wondered if someone was moving or maybe I was getting engaged to be married,” Heather said.
On July 24, the LeMay siblings converged at Chuck and Lorna’s home. Most were mildly surprised when Kristine, her brother Christopher and his wife also showed up but thought it was just a coincidence that they dropped by, said Tiffany.
A short video of the big reveal shows Kristine announcing she had gone through donor testing and was a match for Kaia, with the LeMays reacting in teary and joyful surprise.
Kristine says she was both excited and nervous about sharing the news.
“This feels like the culmination of a long shared history starting from when we were so young,” Tiffany said.
To help offset costs of the surgery and time lost from work for both Kaia and Kristine, the family is holding a fundraiser benefit Sept. 8 at Mason’s Pub & Eatery, 7000 74th Place. Donations are also being taken by a third-party nonprofit organization called Help Hope Live. As of Aug. 22, the fund had reached $2,000 of its $5,000 goal, Tiffany said.
Raffle baskets will also be on hand, with items donated from many local businesses. “It’s just been a community effort. The response has been overwhelming,” Tiffany said.
For Kaia, a phlebotomist with Froedtert South and the mother of a 5-year-old son, getting a new kidney is a game changer.
Currently she is on 20 medications, a restrictive renal diet and for the past year has been doing at-home dialysis for five or six hours every night.
She said she is looking forward to being able to eat regular food again. “I don’t know if I remember what the old normal is,” Kaia said.
Asked about the turn of events that has led to her daughter’s pending transplant, Lorna said, “I still cry when I think about it. It’s so amazing and so thrilling.”
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