Debbie Shirey loved her weeklong cruise to the Cayman Islands in June.
Debbie Shirey (left) donated a kidney to her brother Tommy Browning, who was suffering from IgA nephropathy. To thank her, Browning, 47, gave her a cruise to the Cayman Islands.
Photo by R.C. Rique
"I had a really good time," the Winfield resident said. "We were gone for seven days, and I could have stayed seven more days. ... It was so pretty."
But Shirey, 49, didn't save up to pay for her trip, and it wasn't a birthday gift or result of a lottery prize.
The cruise was a thank-you from her brother, to whom she gave the gift of life - a kidney.
"There isn't anything I can do to compare to that," said Shirey's brother, Tommy Browning, 47, of west Augusta. "That's just a gift of life, is what it amounts to. She didn't think twice about it."
A decade ago, doctors found that Browning had IgA nephropathy, which causes damage to the kidneys through an abnormal buildup of protein. The disease presents few symptoms, so it is usually hard to detect.
"One day, they (doctors) said he may have to have a kidney transplant, but I never did think that day would come," Shirey said.
When the day came this past year, Shirey and another of Browning's four sisters were tested for compatibility to donate a kidney.
"I prayed about it," Shirey said. "I said, 'If I'm the one that it's meant to be, then let me be the match.'"
Two days later, Shirey found out she was the best match.
Shirey and Browning underwent the nearly daylong transplant operation in September. Browning worked as a block- and bricklayer until the week before the transplant, when he was down to 14 percent kidney function. Because his sister was willing to give one of her kidneys, Browning never had to go on dialysis, which involves cleaning toxins from the blood with a machine.
"I was kind of dreading that (dialysis),", Browning said, knowing that people often spend years on dialysis while waiting for a donor kidney to become available. "... I'm just so lucky."
Browning said he remembers hearing Shirey's voice in the recovery room after the surgery asking whether he was OK. Before the pair left the hospital after less than a week of recovery time and observation, Browning had already told Shirey he was taking her on a cruise when they felt better.
"I thought it would be a little something for her," Browning said. "It is nothing compared to what she did, though. ... She was pretty tough."
Shirey said she was out of her job at University Hospital's patient accounts department for eight weeks of recovery while family and friends from her Winfield community and her church, Shiloh United Methodist Church, brought her meals and helped care for her.
"It's just really amazing how good everything went," Shirey said. She added that the worst part of the experience was her fear of needles and how many of them she had to endure for tests and the surgery.
"It was really, really a miracle. I know a lot of people have (transplants) and there are people around here that do it, but it's just a miracle how easy everything went."
Browning's recovery went nearly as well. He was hospitalized a few times while doctors regulated several medications that keep his body from rejecting his kidney.
Browning said he was back to work a few weeks before Christmas feeling better than he had in years.
"I feel so much better. I don't know when I have felt this good," Browning said.
Before the transplant, he was often exhausted, he said. "I thought that was the way I was supposed to feel. I can take the heat better now. I feel like a new person.''
After nearly a year, Shirey said the experience has brought her and her brother closer, and she has no regrets. She said she can't tell a difference having one kidney instead of two except for the scar from the surgery. She'll share her experience at a November National Kidney Foundation event in Atlanta.
"We have gotten closer since all of this," Shirey said. "Somebody told me that that's why God gave you two kidneys, so you could give one away.''
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