ATLANTA - On the morning they returned to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta last month, Susan Ellis and Tia Wimbush got a pretty raucous surprise, "Welcome back," from their coworkers after an extraordinary few months in both of their lives.
"You learn a lot about yourself and your resiliency, your faith, your friends, your family," Susan Ellis says.
To understand the moment in which both women found themselves, you have to go back to the fall of 2019.
Tia's husband Rodney Wimbush, a McDonough high school teacher, got sick first.
He ended up in the nurse's office, feeling terrible.
Tia and Rodney Wimbush of McDonough, Georgia, pose for a selfie after their transplant surgeries at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital. (Wimbush family photo)
"And his blood pressure was at stroke-level," Tia Wimbush says.
Rodney was rushed to a local emergency department, where the couple was stunned by the diagnosis.
He was in end-stage kidney failure.
Wimbush needed to start dialysis immediately, the doctor told them.
They would not release him from the hospital until he had scheduled his first dialysis session.
"It was an absolute shock," says Tia Wimbush. "We didn't understand what was being said to us was, what the magnitude was, what that meant."
Within a few weeks, in Peachtree Corners, Susan Ellis' fiancée Lance, began to sense his body was rejecting the kidney his mother had donated to him two years earlier, after a long battle with kidney failure.
Susan and Lance Ellis, after their transplant surgeries at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital.
He dreaded going back on dialysis, he says and was in denial about how bad he was feeling.
"One morning before work, my body cramped up, like, it was just one huge cramp," Ellis remembers. "It's the same thing as with Rodney. They're, like, 'Your kidneys are gone.'"
Both men began dialysis, and Susan and Lance Ellis moved up their wedding.
"It was devastating to watch my husband try to be the strongest that he could for his new wife and his new family," Susan Ellis says.
A manager at Children's connected the two, knowing they were on similar paths.
As the months passed, Susan and Lance both underwent medical evaluations to qualify to be a kidney donor and recipient.
She could not give him her kidney because he needed a donor with type O blood.
The two qualified for a kidney transplant chain, but it fell through because of the pandemic.
Last winter, with both Ellis and Wimbush now back at work, they ran into each other in a bathroom.
"And, she mentioned again that she and her husband were not a match," Tia Wimbush says. "I asked her, 'Well, what was his blood type?' And, she said, 'O-negative.'"
Tia is O-positive.
Tia and Rodney Wimbush pose with their sons.
In that moment, she says, she realized she might be the match Lance Ellis was looking for.
"I was just stopped in my tracks," she says. "I thought, what if we could match for each other?"
A few months later, the two couples met up in the early morning hours at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital.
The day they had waited so long for was finally here.
"When you think about what we were doing, it's actually kind of scary," Wimbush says. "It's a big deal! But, we just had a peace in that moment, that this was what we were supposed to do."
One of Susan's kidneys was removed and given to Rodney, and one of Tia's to Lance.
Ellis says he had not realized just how sick he had become until he came out of his transplant surgery, and his new kidney took over.
"I mean, as soon as you wake up from surgery, it's like hitting a light switch," Lance Ellis says. "You feel amazing. You're ready to go for a run."
Tia Wimbush says the experience was powerful.
"I felt exhilarated," she says. "I felt exhilarated because of what we had done. Because I was able to donate my kidney to Lance, and just the magnificence of God, if you will."
The surgery, Wimbush says, transformed her husband.
"This is like the happiest I have ever seen him, because he's got this second chance at life," his wife says. "And, this chance to be fully present for me and my boys, and it just means the world to him."
During their Zoom interviews, Tia stops to thank Susan, and Lance thanks Tia.
But Tia Wimbush and Susan Ellis feel like they got the real gift here.
"Rodney was able to give his son a diploma last night on stage, as he graduated high school," Susan Ellis says. "For me to witness that was greater than any lottery I could have won."
And Ellis and Wimbush hope their story might inspire others to look into becoming living donors.
To learn more about the screening process and paired kidney exchanges, visit kidneyregistry.org.
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