When Jamie Hansard and Sara Gragg met at Texas Tech University in 2007, they had no idea one would save the other's life less than 10 years later.
There are more than 8,000 people in Texas waiting on a new kidney. Data from the U.S Department of Health and Human Services shows most will wait several years before a transplant match is found. Many won't survive the wait.
Last year, when Jamie Hansard, executive director of undergraduate admissions at Texas Tech University, learned she would need a transplant, she said she felt overwhelmed and scared. But thanks to fellow Red Raider Sara Gragg, Hansard not only received a new kidney in a matter of months – she's already well on her way back to a normal life.
"We were great friends before this process, but I don't think you can even begin to describe the bond that we have after the transplant," said Hansard. "When you give an organ like a kidney, you are giving the recipient their life back. It truly is life-changing."
Hansard and Gragg, who was a graduate research assistant at the time, met in 2007 after they each moved to Lubbock. Gragg's husband, J.D., worked with Hansard, first in university advising then in undergraduate admissions, and the women became fast friends.
Over the past 10 years, Hansard said the Graggs have become more like family to her and her husband, Dale. Gragg graduated from Texas Tech with a doctorate in animal science in 2012. But even after Gragg moved to Olathe, Kansas, where she is an assistant professor of Food Science at Kansas State University, the two couples continued to be part of each other's lives, spending holidays and vacations together.
In February 2016, Hansard received the devastating news that would bring them even closer.
"I had a routine blood test and the lab results showed elevated creatinine levels," Hansard said. "I was referred to a nephrologist who said I had stage 4 chronic kidney disease."
Two months of testing confirmed the best course of action for Hansard would be a kidney transplant. She broke the news to the Graggs during a vacation to Las Vegas.
"We were on a family vacation, and Sara noticed that something was wrong," Hansard said. "When she asked, I told her and her husband that I needed a kidney transplant."
Immediately, both of the Graggs offered to help in any way they could, including donating one of their own kidneys.
"I was overwhelmed with gratitude, love and appreciation," Hansard said. "They were both offering me a chance for a normal life and there truly is no better gift."
Including the Graggs, Hansard had seven friends submit applications to be kidney donors. As the living donor testing progressed at UMC Health Systems in Lubbock, it became apparent Sara Gragg would be the best match.
"J.D. and I began to tell our family, and they were all very supportive of my decision to donate a kidney to Jamie," Gragg said. "Although I never vacillated in my decision to offer a kidney to Jamie, I did have to address the emotional aspect of how this decision could impact my family in the future. Jamie was a tremendous source of support during the entire process and we truly walked this journey together."
Still, Hansard said she had some concerns. She wanted to make sure donation was the right choice for Gragg and her family and, most importantly, that Gragg's quality of life wouldn't be affected after the transplant. Above all, Hansard wanted to be sure the decision to donate a kidney was Gragg's own choice and not one she felt pressured to make by Hansard or anyone else.
"Donating a kidney is a personal journey and has to be something the donor decides. I think that it is essential that the recipient does not interfere with that process because the donor is making a lifelong commitment and it needs to be the right decision for the donor and the donor's family," Hansard said. "It was important for her to know I would support whatever decision she made and it would not negatively affect our friendship."
Hansard said having a living donor provide a kidney so quickly was the best outcome she could have hoped for. The longer a person waits for a kidney, the longer they must stay on dialysis, which can cause its own set of health complications. And while an organ donation can also come from a deceased donor, Hansard said kidneys from a living donor have the best rate of survival for both the recipient and the transplanted kidney.
Gragg said she never questioned her decision to donate and would make the same choice again in a heartbeat. Serving as a living donor is one of the most rewarding journeys a person can experience, she said.
"While the entire process is quite emotional and lengthy, the end result of watching somebody you care deeply about thrive and become healthy is indescribable," Gragg said. "I feel eternally blessed to have been given the opportunity to give this gift to Jamie. I was blessed with well-functioning kidneys and excellent health; therefore, it was an obvious decision to share those blessings with her."
The journey has only strengthened the friendship the women started all those years ago. They each serve as the other's support network, Hansard said, with no secrets between them.
"We talk on a daily basis and keep each other informed, including sharing and comparing lab results to make sure we are both doing well," Hansard said, "But while this transplant is important and life-changing, it doesn't define our friendship."
The transplant surgery took place in October at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Now past the three-month mark in their recovery – a major milestone in regards to transplants – the women are hoping their story will encourage others to consider becoming a living donor. Both families will participate in the Dallas Kidney Walk on May 6 to support the National Kidney Foundation.
They've also begun work to raise awareness about kidney donations, with Hansard working with the South Plains Kidney Foundation and Gragg reaching out to the branch of the National Kidney Foundation in Kansas.
Gragg said she hopes people realize that while a donation can mean the difference between life and death for a recipient, the effect is far less severe for the donor.
"The physical impacts on the living donor are quite minimal, as the exhaustive living donor testing is designed to identify a match for the recipient, but also an individual who is in good health," Gragg said. "Therefore, once recovered from surgery, the donor is expected to resume a normal, healthy life."
Hansard said she knows just how fortunate she is to have Gragg as a living donor.
"Living kidney donation is the best chance of long-lasting success," Hansard said. "The average wait time for people on the kidney transplant list is three to six years. If it wasn't for Sara, I would have waited until my match was found."
For more information on getting involved, visit the South Plains Kidney Foundation website.