Twauna Stuart changed her ‘corner of the world’
On her 9th birthday nearly three months ago, Taylor Winningham made a wish that her dad would get a new kidney.
Her dad, Craig, a 35-year-old Cookeville native, had been on dialysis for a year and a half, his health was quickly deteriorating — and then a stranger stepped in to help.
An employee at Belk’s Estee Lauder counter, Twauna Stuart, knew Craig’s mother, Linda, as a customer and as a friend who had offered her support when she suffered a breast cancer scare.
Linda had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, and when Twauna feared that she also might have breast cancer in 2002, a mutual friend related Twauna’s story to Linda who offered to be there for support and encouragement.
And apparently Linda made quite an impression on Twauna who noticed on one occasion late last year that her new friend was upset.
‘It’s my son’
“She said, ‘It’s my son. He needs a kidney transplant,'” Twauna remembers. “My first response was, ‘How does it work?'”
“She just came out with the phone numbers, and the next day we were on the phone with Vanderbilt,” Twauna said.
And a little more than three weeks ago, 9-year-old Taylor got her wish.
She’s a ‘match’
After months of testing, Twauna proved to be healthy enough and close enough to a perfect ‘match’ that she gave up one of her kidneys to save Craig’s life.
“Vanderbilt said it is a one in 10,000 chance that an unknown donor would match someone needing a kidney,” Twauna said.
“Being a six-out-of-six match is a one in a million chance. We were a five-out-of-six match.”
Craig’s need for a kidney came fairly suddenly, although he was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 12.
“I was working full time at RSC/Rental Services Corp., and I had some blood work done,” Craig said. “They called me the next day at work and said, ‘Your kidneys are about to shut down.'”
That was in Sept. 2002 when Craig went from seemingly healthy to very sick.
“I was always athletic all through high school, and my life changed within five minutes from going to work to being on a machine,” Craig said.
‘Life came to halt’
“From that one phone call, everything in my life came to a halt,” he said. “I worked for six months after that, but I got so sick, I couldn’t do it.”
So Craig went on dialysis as much as six days a week.
“Every time I went, they would pull 20 to 25 pounds of fluid off me,” he said.
“I was on the machine for five hours a day,” he said.
And in the meantime, Craig was put on the transplant waiting list for a kidney and a pancreas.
Since both of his parents had been sick, his mom with breast cancer and his dad with heart problems, neither could donate one of their kidneys in order for Craig to live.
“You can’t have any kind of complications,” he said. “It really takes a perfectly healthy person to donate.”
And his wife, Felicia, couldn’t donate because she was seven months pregnant at the time with their second child, Haley, now 17-months old.
“She wanted to give me a kidney but she had to be healthy for the baby,” he said.
As Craig’s condition quickly worsened, his family became even more concerned that he wouldn’t live long enough for the right donor to come along.
“I met some people in dialysis who had been waiting for five years,” Craig said.
Lucky for Craig
But lucky for Craig, the right donor showed up in the form of someone he had never met.
“I’m lucky that my mom and Twauna were good friends,” Craig said. “I’d never met this lady before.”
“I sympathized with her right away as a mother, but I knew what a good-hearted person she was,” Twauna said. “She stepped out to help me, and I felt like it was my time to help her.”
But Twauna’s decision to help wasn’t as easy as saying, “I’ll do it.” She had to miss months of work in order to go through the testing required to make sure she was a match as well as healthy enough to donate a kidney.
“It’s easy to say, ‘I’ll do it,’ but to go through all the tests takes a lot of guts and courage,” said Deloy, Craig’s father.
“You can’t just do it,” Linda said. “They test you, test you and test you to make sure.”
“They only pick 42 percent of potential donors,” Twauna said.
‘Strictly a miracle’
“A good story like this is strictly a miracle,” Deloy said. “God had to be working between these two ladies. What I feel good about is that Linda was such an inspiration to Twauna, she said she’d do anything to help us if she could. She really stepped up to the plate.”
Stepping up to the plate did take a lot of courage and meant a lot of pain for Twauna, but she did her research on donors leading a normal life after surgery.
“There is some pain that is involved in being a donor, but never have I spent a week of going through what Craig went through,” Twauna said. “So many people knew him, and no one stood up to do this. There’s a big scare factor, but they test you unbelievably. And your surgical team is different from theirs. You know going into it that nothing will hinder you.
‘Prayed all the time’
“Although it’s scary, I prayed about this all the time, and I prayed that if it was God’s will, it would go forward,” she said. “It was not scary once it started at all. It was nerve-wracking until I knew whether I passed the tests. You even meet with a psychiatrist. They want to know why you want to do this.
“I wanted to change my corner of the world,” Twauna said. “I wanted people to see this and follow suit. I’ve never second guessed my decision. It’s so meaningful, and the bond the two of us have is unbelievable.
“I met Craig after the second blood test,” Twauna said. “I thought he looked pretty rough then, but I’d never seen him before. Now he looks like a completely different person.”
“I said from the start that Twauna was my angel,” Craig said. “She didn’t just make me feel better. She saved my life. I was told I wouldn’t make it another year if I didn’t have surgery.”
Dr. Case helped
But Twauna wasn’t the only factor in saving Craig’s life. A Cookeville cardiologist, Dr. Alex Case, also stepped in to perform a last-minute arteriogram before Craig could be declared healthy enough for surgery.
“He dropped what he was doing and took it,” Linda said. “Vanderbilt would have stopped the transplant if he hadn’t had the arteriogram.”
And Vanderbilt also performed double duty that day.
“Vanderbilt worked us in,” Craig said. “They usually only do one a day, and they had a double surgery that day.”
Almost immediately after surgery, Craig felt better.
“I felt nearly like I was in high school,” he said. “It’s been many years since I’ve felt this good. I’m still sore, but I feel great.”
Twauna and the Winninghams are so happy about their life-saving story that they want to encourage others to sign up to be organ donors.
“I never thought about donating organs until I got in these shoes,” Craig said. “When people die, they should sign their donor card because of the lives they can save. It sure is hard to find a human as healthy as Twauna to give up one.”
And Twauna explained that kidneys from live donors have a greater chance of being accepted by the recipient.
She said with a live donor, there is an 87-percent chance of reception. Otherwise, there’s only a 60-percent chance.
Become a donor
Twauna said that anyone can become a living donor by calling the Vanderbilt Kidney Transplant Center.
“A lot of people are born with one kidney, and a lot of those people have a normal life,” she said. “I want people to get out of the fear. The reward you get for the pain you go through is immeasurable in comparison.
“I’m not going to tell you it doesn’t hurt or that it’s not uncomfortable,” Twauna said. “But I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
But the biggest reason Twauna is happy with the sacrifice she made is the impression it made on a little girl who wished for her daddy to live.
‘Daddy’s going to live’
“The day after surgery, Taylor came into my room and said, ‘I want to thank you. My daddy’s going to live now,'” she said.
Twauna and the Winningham family are also thankful for their supporters in the community and Cookeville-area churches who kept Craig on their regular prayer lists while he was waiting for a transplant.
And Twauna said she’s also thankful that Belk has let her keep her job through the months she’s been off work.
She feels like the sacrifice was worth it.
“I lost a brother several years ago,” she said. “In a lot of ways, Craig is like him. And in a way, I feel like I’ve got a piece of him back.”
The Winninghams also feel they have gained a family member.
“She’s part of our family now,” Deloy said.
Published June 14, 2004 12:35 PM CDT
Copyright 2005 Herald-Citizen, a division of Cleveland Newspapers, Inc.