HAMMOND — Angela Robertson, 50, sat nervously, hands pressed against her thighs, as she waited at a banquet table Friday evening for a woman giving her a gift that could change her life.
When she turned around, she saw Jeri Gill, the 53-year-old mother of four, who saw Robertson's plea for help on Facebook seven months ago and offered to give her the kidney she needs to resolve a rare genetic disorder.
"I was wondering if this day was coming," Gill said, as she hugged Robertson for the first time, both women tearing up.
Despite the intimate procedure the two women will undergo, the pair only have spoken via Facebook Messenger. They worried that meeting too soon could have raised their expectations had it not worked out, and they wanted to greet each with their families on hand.
"I just thank you. I just thank you so much for doing it for me," Robertson told Gill as they sat next to each other at the dinner table.
"It's my pleasure. I've told you that all along. It is my pleasure," she responded.
The pair said they wanted to share their story in case it motivates someone else to donate a kidney to someone in need.
Robertson has a rare genetic condition called polycystic kidney disease that causes cysts to grow on her kidneys, stopping them from functioning normally. It's a disease that runs in her family, and it has already killed her father and brother.
Robertson has been dealing with the condition since she was 17 years old, and she had one of her kidneys removed in September. The remaining one weighs more than 15 pounds, making her feel sore and pregnant.
For the past seven years, Robertson, who lives in Independence, has undergone dialysis three times a week while she waited on a list to receive a kidney from a deceased donor.
On New Years Day, she reached out with a hope and a prayer to her followers:
"Friends and family, please share this on your Facebook (page). Maybe, God willing, I will find some special person to donate me a kidney," Robertson wrote on a post with her photo and blood type.
Gill, who lives in Springfield, was interested in donating a kidney after a viral video she watched online several months earlier. In that video, a woman and her husband weep as she presents him with a customized baseball card that says she is his match and can be his donor.
"It was very emotional. And that's where the seed was planted," Gill said. "Because I think before that, I wasn't even sure you could donate a kidney."
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Just 90 minutes after Robertson's post went live, Gill saw the request on her feed. She reached out immediately.
They started chatting back and forth, and soon Gill was undergoing what would be a series of 46 tests and consultations that lasted months. Gill has a blood condition called postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome that complicated the process.
Gill said she also talked it over with each of her kids.
"All four of them gave me their blessing immediately, without hesitation," she said. "There is no kidney disease in my family, so I feel comfortable that I can give up a kidney."
Dr. Dennis Sonnier, an abdominal transplant surgeon with Ochsner Multi-Organ Transplant Institute in New Orleans, will perform the procedure.
Sonnier said that while meeting transplant donors online is still uncommon, it's happening more frequently and has become a topic at transplant conferences.
The doctor said he now advises kidney transplant patients to reach out to their networks to see if they can find a donor there, instead of waiting an average of 6 to 7 years on the list.
"The real feat there is a lot of people don't like admitting the stigma of having kidney disease publicly and being on dialysis," Sonnier said.
Sonnier said the risks are minimal for the donor. Although it is an invasive surgery, people usually recover in a few weeks and can resume their lives as normal. The remaining kidney grows in the months following the procedure to compensate for the one that was removed.
Plus, people receiving kidneys form living donors tend to have better results than those from deceased donors on the list. A transplanted kidney from a living donor ideally lasts at least 10 years.
"Their organ might not necessarily last forever," Sonnier said, adding that the "benefit in quality of life and longevity they gain from being off dialysis is substantial and totally worth going through the transplant."
Gill, the donor, said she is not nervous about the surgery she'll undergo. What keeps her up at night is the fear that Robertson's body might reject the organ.
"As we get closer and closer the thought of that starts weighing on me a little bit," Gill said.
Robertson, the mother of three, said she is looking forward to having back the energy and freedom that dialysis treatments have taken from her.
The surgery is scheduled to take place on Aug. 20, her 51st birthday.
"It's the best birthday gift anyone could ever have," she said.