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What would you do for a friend? Former Tri-City woman is poised to go under the knife

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Thursday, May 18, 2017

Dawn Johnson and Mary Frances Lembo both love to ride horses on Red Mountain.

It's a chance for the longtime friends to enjoy being outside, in nature, apart from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the world.

"It soothes the soul," Johnson said.

"It's very peaceful. You're in the saddle, looking out over the vineyard," said Lembo, adding there's time to catch up and chat.

These days, the women have a lot to chat about.

Johnson, 55, of Richland, has a kidney condition that's getting worse. She'll have to start dialysis soon and is awaiting a transplant.

Lembo, 54, a former Tri-Citian who now lives in Michigan, isn't a match for her friend. But she's agreed to take part in a "paired donation," which will give Johnson a better chance of finding a match.

Lembo said it was a simple call for her. She's healthy and able to participate, and her willingness to donate gives Johnson a shot at a radically improved life.

For Johnson, it's a stunningly generous move.

"'Overwhelming' is the word that comes to mind," she said. "The fact that someone would step up and do something like this for me (is unbelievable)."

Johnson is a teacher in the Pasco School District. She was diagnosed with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, or FSGS, in her 20s.

It's a rare disease that affects the kidney's filtering units. There are two different kinds: primary and secondary.

Johnson has the secondary form, caused — in her case — by a genetic defect. She was born with only one kidney.

Her kidney function is decreasing and she's set to begin dialysis training this week. She'll soon start nightly dialysis at home.

She's one of about 118,000 people across the country in need of a life-saving organ transplant. Many of them are in need of kidneys.

The time on the transplant list varies, but it can take years. Johnson has type O blood, which lengthens her wait time. That's because people with that blood type are universal donors, meaning their organs can go to people with other blood types, but they can only receive donations from fellow type Os.

Both of Johnson's brothers were tested, but they weren't matches for her. A neighbor also appeared at first to be a match, but eventually was eliminated.

That's where Lembo comes in. She's not type O, so she can't donate directly to Johnson. But she's agreed to be part of UNOS's kidney paired donation program, in which non-matching pairs like Johnson and Lembo are linked with other non-matching pairs or become part of a larger donation chain. Being part of the program hopefully will shorten Johnson's wait time.

UNOS stands for United Network for Organ Sharing; it's the organization that facilitates organ donation in the U.S.

Lembo works as a research librarian for Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, telecommuting from Grand Rapids, where she lives with her husband, John Tindall.

She's stepmom to three boys, ages 17 to 23.

She and Johnson met about 16 years ago, their bond growing through walks with their dogs, through horseback riding.

Lembo recently was in the Tri-Cities. At Johnson's home on a recent afternoon, the two women laughed and reminisced about past adventures, about fun times.

At one point, Johnson's husband, Tim Johnson, walked out to the backyard. He warmly greeted Lembo, saying she's "the best ever."

"It's just huge (what she's doing), it really is," he said. "The generosity is almost without bounds. What would you do (for a friend)? Would you go under the knife? I don't know what to say."

Lembo first considered kidney donation a while back, when a neighbor girl in Michigan needed a transplant. Lembo was tested, but didn't match.

When she learned about Johnson's situation, she wanted to help.

"It's a few weeks of recovery and discomfort for me, and a lifetime (of change) for the person who gets the kidney," she said. "What's four to six weeks of my life compared to years of (someone else) continuing to live? To me, it's a no-brainer."

Lembo is cleared and ready to donate a kidney. Now it's a matter of finding a donor who's a match for Johnson.

Once a donor is found, it won't take long to move to transplant.

And to a better life for Johnson and others in the donation chain. To more time outside, laughing and being in nature, chatting and riding on Red Mountain.

Johnson and Lembo said they hope people will consider donation. It makes a difference.

"One person can start a chain," Johnson said. "One person can start a chain and have such a powerful impact on so many people's lives."

Johnson is treated at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane. To inquire about donating a kidney to her, call the hospital's transplant program at 800-667-0502.

Author: Sara Schilling
Source: Tri-City Herald
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