When Katie Holland and Felesia Buczynski met on the set of Sampson Community Theatre’s “The Odd Couple,” back in 2006, they had no idea how intertwined their lives would one day become. Yet six years after that first meeting, the two are now bound by a special gift given by the one to save the other.
Two weeks ago, Holland and Buczynski sat in the living room of Holland’s family home, comparing notes on the recent transplant surgeries both underwent — the 49-year-old Buczynski as the gifter of a healthy kidney to her 32-year-old friend who desperately needed it to better her own quality of life and free her from dialysis.
Although still recovering from the Oct. 23 surgeries, both women have a glow to their cheeks and a bounce to their step, albeit a slower one as they continue to recuperate from what they both admit was pretty serious procedures. And the room is filled with laughter as the two, flanked by family members, talk about the journey they have traveled for the past several months.
For Holland, it’s a journey that has given her a renewed life, free from the dialysis she has undergone three days a week for nearly a year. For Buczynski, it’s a path of self-reflection that has steeled her resolve that giving of oneself when you can should be second nature but shouldn’t make you a hero, merely human.
As much as Holland attests that her friend is, indeed, her hero, a real angel of mercy, Buczynski insists it just isn’t so.
“The goal was for Katie to have a pretty normal life. It wasn’t to make me something I don’t feel like I am,” Buczynski points out. “Knowing what kind of life Katie had, with the dialysis and all, and realizing just how blessed I have been with good health that we all take for granted, it just seemed like the right thing to do.
“Honestly, once I realized what she needed and how it could change her life, it didn’t take me long to make my decision.”
Holland shakes her head. “Nope, she’s my hero. I mean, she ranks right up there with you know who,” she laughs as she references the celebrity love of her life George Clooney, a mantra familiar to Sampson Independent readers who have followed Holland’s Kandid Katie column in the newspaper while she worked there and even after her illness forced her to leave the full-time Lifestyles position she held.
The two share a bond that has been forged over time and, perhaps, sealed, with the fact the Holland now, quite literally, carries a part of Buczynski with her wherever she goes. They’ve bonded so much, in fact, that one can complete the other’s sentence as they talk about their friendship, the journey to the kidney transplant and now their recovery.
They became friends while working on the female version of “The Odd Couple,” at SCT and they kept up with one another through Facebook, often running into one another from one theater show to another.
“Theater kind of brought us together,” Holland stresses.
Buczynski laughs. “Yep, it really did. I remember doing Katie’s makeup for the “Odd Couple,” and after that, we just became friends. We kept in contact and we’d see each other at different shows and things. And, of course, Facebook.”
But it was later that Buczynski learned of Katie’s illness, Polycystic Kidney Disease.
“We started talking a lot on Facebook and I think that’s how Felesia learned what I was going through.”
Her friend nods in agreement. “I think I began to understand when you were writing about the PKD walk. That’s when I really learned about your condition.”
The walk, Holland explained, was something she was determined to do to help raise money for the disease that was taking its toll on her body.
Holland was diagnosed with the disease while she was working in Charlotte back in 2005. As she talks about those early years and her physical struggles, Buczynski listens intently.
“That was the first time I was in renal failure,” Holland recalled. “I was only 25. I had a lot of things going on, high blood pressure, diabetes, just a lot of health issues. My creatinine level (how her kidneys function) was too high … there were just a lot of problems.”
It was then that the realization hit Holland squarely in the eyes … and the heart.
“I knew at 25, because of my condition with my kidneys, that within 10 years dialysis would be in my future.”
Buczynski shakes her head, concern showing in her furrowed brow.
In truth, her condition worsened quicker than even Holland imagined.
By the time she had returned home and started working at the local newspaper, her creatinine level was increasing. A normal level is 1 to 1.5; hers was already at 2 and climbing.
“Then something happened and it climbed all the way to 4. That’s when serious discussions about dialysis began.”
She began making the preparations her doctors recommended, including procedures that would make access for dialysis in her veins.
“I was trying to put it off as long as I could,” Holland recalls, “because I just wasn’t all that crazy about those huge needles.”
Then the surgeon told her the startling news that her kidney function was the best she’d ever have, the reality check she needed to jolt her into action.
“In 2010 I was told there wasn’t any need to start dialysis yet, which was fine with me. But as my symptoms got worse, the wait got shorter. By May 2011, I couldn’t wait any longer. I had to start whether I wanted to or not.”
She had left the newspaper by then and taken a part-time job at Roseboro United Methodist Church. Overall, she said, she thought her health was pretty good, considering her kidney function.
“The irony was, I felt OK most of the time. But then, again, there were times when I couldn’t function. I’d have bone pain, all types of other things going on.”
Now on dialysis and, after the first couple of difficult days, learning to cope with her new life, Holland began in earnest to look for a donor.
“At that point, I knew my days of living without dialysis was out of the picture, unless I could find a donor and get a new kidney. It was dialysis, a new kidney or die. Not so many options, really.”
With diabetes running in her family, Holland’s parents and brother were immediately out of the question as donors. Once again, she turned to Facebook.
“In 2010, when I was evaluated at UNC, I actually started asking people if they were willing to donate a kidney to me, but I think I ask in a way that most people didn’t take it all that seriously.”
After she started dialysis, she began asking again, this time with a different, more pleading tone.
“Acutally, it was my Aunt Kathy who went on Facebook and basically posted something like this, ‘People take this seriously.” Holland and Buczynski laugh as they recall the post and the return messages.
People began to respond, though, and several took the necessary steps to be tested to see if they were a match, including another theater and family friend, Tom Wilbur.
“I was really overwhelmed by those willing to do this for me,” Holland attests. “It was an answered prayer.”
About that time, Buczynski decided to be tested, too. She was a match.
“I looked at my life and how blessed I have been. I have two wonderful children, a great husband, decent health. Then I looked at all Katie had been through and how young she was. It was an easy decision,” Buczynski asserts.
But Holland was still unsure. “It was such a gift, I was just a little uncertain if she would really want to go through with it.”
But Buczynski never doubted for a second her intention. “Look, I made the decision and that was it. I never thought about asking anyone else, not even my husband, which I should have done. But I knew once I decided, that was it, I wouldn’t turn back.”
She didn’t either. Through the testing and the mounds of paperwork, the discussions with therapists, all the things a donor must do before a transplant is finally OK’d, she never once considered backing out. “I was determined. I knew how much Katie needed this, and I had a perfectly good kidney, so I figured it was what I was supposed to do.”
Holland, on the other hand, was on pins and needles. “This was a big step and I knew it. I just didn’t know how determined Felesia would be.”
On Oct. 23, the pair underwent the surgery and by the weekend, both were home recuperating. Both are doing well now and grateful for the outpouring of love from family, friends and a caring community that not only offered their prayers but also helped raise thousands of dollars for Holland just prior to the procedure.
“It’s humbling, all that has happened,” Holland admits. “Our fundraising was a success, the surgery was a success and I’m feeling pretty good already. What’s more, so is Felesia.”
They smile a knowing smile at one another.
“We’ve both been blown away by the response. Facebook has been packed with messages, some from people one or the other of us didn’t even know. That people care that much is, well, touching.” Buczynski says.
Though they had tried to keep it quiet until after the surgery, once home, it was easy to see that quiet it would no longer be.
“I’m a low key person, and I didn’t think all the attention was necessary,” Buczynski says. “I wanted and appreciate the prayers and concerns, though, I really do. And we needed them.”
But the hero stuff she could do without.
No so for Holland, who continually sings her friend’s praises.
“I look at her in a whole different light now. She really is my hero,” she attests.
Both preach supporting the donor programs, noting that it really is the gift of life.
“A lot of people thought I was crazy. I think just the opposite,” Buczynski attests. “It was what I am supposed to do. It makes me a little ill that more people don’t feel that way. I hope this story will change their thoughts.”
The donor’s surgery is paid for by the recipient’s insurance and should anything happen to Buczynski’s other kidney, she immediately goes to the top of the donor level, getting preferential treatment, as any other organ donor would.
“Everything else is minor,” Buczynski said. “I have to watch my own creatinine level and keep a check on my blood pressure, but other than that, once I’m fully recovered from the surgery life goes on.”
And for Holland life goes on in a far brighter light. “No one will ever know what kind of gift this is. It’s wonderful. Life is good … thanks to Felesia.”