When Donna Huelsbeck and Diana Petersen met, the women felt an instant connection.
So close, in fact, that not long after, Donna offered Diana, who was suffering from an incurable and deadly kidney condition, the gift of life. She told her that when the time came, she would give her a kidney.
Earlier this year, 10 years later, Donna did just that.
“It’s one of those things, people say, ‘oh, I’ll do that’,” Diana said. “They say it to make you feel better. But she was absolutely, 100 percent serious.”
Both women believe it was divine intervention that brought them together.
“That’s why I was so calm about it,” Donna said. “I was meant to do this.”
The women met when Donna interviewed at J.H. Wright & Associates for the senior accountant job, a position she would eventually land and in turn, become Diana’s supervisor.
During the interview process, the women said they had an immediate bond. One so tight, that Diana felt comfortable sharing the story of her slowly failing kidneys.
Diana, of Summerdale, was stricken with Polysystic Kidney Disease which causes cysts to grow in both kidneys. As the bulk of the cysts increases over time, kidney function decreases, eventually leading to kidney failure.
The genetic disease runs rampant in Diana’s family. Her father, his three brothers and her grandmother all passed away from it. Her sister died of an aneurysm when she was 26, one of the side effects of the disease. Diana said she always knew eventually, she would succumb to it as well.
Diana was eight months pregnant with her son in 2008 when the diagnosis came.
“The realization of getting the diagnosis is flooring. At that point you know one day your life is really uncertain,” she said.
That uncertainty arrived last year. The cysts had caused her kidneys to each grow to be larger than a football. A normal kidney measures about the size of an apple. The organs began to fail. Diana was placed on dialysis and began the search for a transplant donor.
Meanwhile, after years working in the same office, Donna moved on to a company in Pensacola. The women remained friends and when they met for dinner last year, Donna knew it was time to make good on her promise.
“I started to see a decline in her health,” Donna said.
So she asked simply, ‘What do I need to do?’
Diana said she was hesitant to ask her friend, her mentor, to be tested to become a donor. But Donna never wavered.
Doctors warned the pair that there was only a 25 percent chance that a direct family member would be eligible to donate a kidney. The chances of finding an unrelated donor? One in 100,000.
Donna was a perfect match.
“It was an insane feeling,” she said. “I felt very blessed and humbled to help her in that way.”
Diana received the good news while she was standing in line at the grocery store. She burst into tears as she shared the story with those around her.
“From that day forward it was a new journey knowing I was eventually going to beat this,” Diana said. “That was pretty much a miracle.”
On Jan. 18 the pair underwent surgery. At that point, Diana’s kidneys were only functioning at 3 percent. Within three hours of the transplant, the kidney Donna gave her was fully functioning.
Now the pair has recovered and is back to work and living life to the fullest.
Donna jokes that she had to give her the kidney to “get some Crimson Tide blood into that Auburn fan.” But the pair is on a bigger mission, to encourage others to donate as well.
“We need to get the word out that donation is, I won’t say easy, but it’s not hard,” Donna said. “Maybe we can save someone else’s life too.”
Donna said the recovery from her surgery to remove the kidney was slightly more difficult than a C-section. She was back to work part-time after three weeks.
“My life hasn’t changed physically but hers has changed 1,000 percent,” Donna said. “The physical transformation she has had from when she started dialysis to now is unbelievable. She is so much healthier with the new kidney.”
Diana said there is no way she can thank Donna except to continue to urge others to do the same and donate.
“There is no way possible to tell her how grateful I am. I just can’t. There’s no word, no gift, no amount of anything to tell her how thankful I am,” Diana said. “It’s a very selfless act. She says she’s not a hero but she’s my personal hero.”