Tony Bollin desperately needed a new kidney, but he never could have imagined where it would come from. A co-worker at Southern California Edison (SCE) he had never met before gave up her kidney so he could live.
“She is an angel,” said Tony of his co-worker, Valerie Jason, four days after his life-saving kidney surgery. “For someone she had never met before … We’re so close now I feel like I’ve known her forever.”
It was more than a year ago that Tony learned his kidney had failed for the second time in 23 years. This time, he had so much to live for, including his 2-year-old twin daughters, Nora and Brooke.
Video Credit: Ernesto Sanchez and Nicholas Roy
SCE employee Tony Bollin desperately needed a new kidney, but never could have imagined who it would come from. Valerie Jason, a co-worker he had never met before, gave her kidney so he could live.
Tony’s wife, Rachel, immediately began a campaign to find her husband a living kidney donor, even starting a Facebook page. Soon, Tony’s co-workers in SCE’s Transmission and Distribution department raised money and donated their vacation hours.
But it was after Tony’s story was published in the company’s online newsroom that co-workers started volunteering to get tested to be a match. In the end, Valerie, or Val as the Bollins affectionately call her, was identified as the perfect match.
“It’s incredible,” said Tony. “People were coming from everywhere. I don’t know these people; it’s amazing. Thank you.”
In April, Valerie drove down from Big Creek to get ready for the first scheduled surgery, but after some tests, doctors at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center discovered Tony’s antibodies had increased and he was no longer a match for Valerie’s kidney.
As tears of disappointment flowed for the co-workers, doctors approached them with the idea of a paired exchange. Valerie would be willing to donate her kidney to a stranger so Tony could receive a healthy one in return. Almost immediately, the database identified a husband and wife in Wisconsin who were matches for Tony and Valerie.
A second surgery was scheduled for June 24 and even as Tony and Rachel drove to the hospital from their home in Corona, the couple was calm and realistic. After all, there had been so many ups and downs the past year, so many disappointments.
But at 1:30 p.m. on the day of the surgery, Rachel’s cell phone started ringing. The kidney had arrived early, the doctor said. Get ready.
“I started crying and could not stop,” said Rachel. “All the emotions started flooding out.” It was the first time in a year that she had allowed herself to believe her husband would be OK.
As Valerie’s surgery was completed without a hitch, Rachel was in the waiting room when she got word that Tony’s surgery had gone perfectly. No longer able to wait, she headed for Tony’s recovery room and could not believe how well he looked so soon after the operation.
“There he is. I haven’t seen this guy for forever. His eyes were already clear,” said Rachel. “It was like seeing him from four years ago standing on the beach in Kauai and we were getting married.”
Valerie is still in a bit of pain, but is now recovering nicely at the hospital.
“I’m really thankful that it’s working out so well for Tony. I learned that the person who got my kidney is also doing well,” said Valerie. “I’m just relieved that it’s over.”
Tony is one of the lucky ones. Currently, there are 118,617 people waiting for lifesaving organ transplants in the U.S. Of this number, 96,645 are waiting for kidney transplants, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Last year, more than 4,900 people died while awaiting a kidney transplant.
Tony’s body has responded extremely well to his new kidney. His most recent labs show that his creatinine — a measure of his kidney function — is 0.9 and his antibodies are now a low 1.2, numbers that are very good. Over the next two weeks, UCLA doctors will be closely monitoring Tony to ensure his body does not reject the kidney.
As Tony sits up in his hospital bed, he’s told that he can finally taste real food for the first time in over a year.
What does he feel like eating? A piece of chocolate cake.
It’s amazing, Tony said, of how much better he feels now, just days after receiving his new kidney.
“I can feel it everywhere,” he said. “I woke up in the recovery room and I could feel it.”
It will be months before Tony can rejoin his buddies at work, but for now he’s looking forward to being able to play with his twin girls when he is back to full health. When he got sick, Nora and Brooke were just 6 months old and he would get winded walking just a few blocks.
Tony and Rachel have even started to think about the future. He thinks a trip up to Napa to visit Rachel’s mom, Rita, would be nice. Or a visit to Idaho to see one of Rachel’s best friends.
But Rachel has bigger plans: she wants to renew their marriage vows in Hawaii at that same spot from four years ago in Kauai.
“There’s nothing I have to worry about. I feel so relaxed,” she said. “Right now I feel like dancing. I can see a long, long life together, the four of us.”