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After reading about Duluth woman’s plight, another woman makes a sacrifice

Identical twins Sara (left) and Jana Healy hang out with their dogs Angel (left) and Rosewell in Duluth earlier this year. The twins share a rare genetic disease that destroys the body's organs. Sara was the recipient on Halloween of a kidney donated by a North Dakota woman who had read about the Healys. (News Tribune file photo)

Amanda Eichmann couldn't get the story, and the young woman in it, off her mind.

"I read that article over and over," the 39-year-old Williston, N.D., woman said last week. "Something kept telling me to read it again and read it again."

Eichmann's interest led to action, and as a result a Duluth woman with a rare genetic disease has a new kidney, sooner than she had reason to hope.

The recipient is Sara Healy, 34, who along with her identical twin sister Jana Healy, of Fargo, N.D., has cystinosis, an incurable genetic disease that only affects 500 people in the United States, according to the Cystinosis Research Foundation.

Amanda Eichmann (left) poses with Sara Healy in Healy's hospital room at the University of Minnesota. (Healy family photo)The disease attacks the body's organs, starting with the kidneys. When the twins were diagnosed at 18 months old, their parents, Dennis and Jane Healy, also of Williston, were told that if the disease went untreated, their kidneys would fail by the age of 9.

The disease's effects were slowed by the use of high-priced prescription drugs, but it continued its unrelenting assault. Jana needed intervention first, receiving a kidney donated by an older sister more than four years ago.

Sara was told about 2½ years ago that it was her turn to need a new kidney. But no family members were a match. She was placed on the list of people needing a kidney and told she likely would have a wait of three to five years.

She might have to go on dialysis before that could happen, she was told.

The story about the Healy twins first appeared in the Duluth News Tribune in March and was picked up by a sister newspaper, the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald.

Eichmann, who is married and has two daughters, came across that story when a friend posted it on Facebook.

Brett and Amanda Eichmann have some connections to the Healy family. Dennis Healy had taught Amanda in school when she was in seventh grade, and the two families go to the same church. But she didn't feel that she really knew the Healys, Amanda said, and she had never met Sara.

Nonetheless, she said, something about Sara's situation touched her.

She also was reminded of something her priest had said some time before.

"Our priest had told us months ago to pray that you're doing God's will," Amanda recalled. "You might be doing a good job, and you might be a good wife and a good mother ... but pray that you're doing God's will, too."

She recalled thinking about Sara's story for about three days.

"And then I just really got a message on my heart that said, 'Your kidney will help Sara,' " Amanda related. "So then I talked to my husband about it, and he said, 'Yeah, whatever you have to do.' "

She did an online search for Minnesota hospitals that perform transplants, came to the University of Minnesota first and sent them an email, telling them of her willingness to donate a kidney for Sara. That was a Sunday evening, Amanda said. The transplant center called her the next morning.

That led to a battery of tests, first to determine if she was healthy enough to donate a kidney and then to find out if she was a match for Sara. She signed a document, Amanda said, detailing the contingency plans if she wasn't a match.

"I said, 'I'll sign your paper but I don't need to, because my kidney's going to help Sara,' " Amanda recalled.

Four days later, the transplant coordinator called Amanda to tell her that she was, indeed, a match.

Sara said she'd been told it probably still would be a year before she would have to go on dialysis. But with a donor secured, she had surgery to remove her kidneys in mid-July in anticipation of the transplant, which was scheduled for Aug. 17.

In the interim, dialysis was required daily, and it left her exhausted, Sara said.

The Eichmanns arrived at the U of M for the transplant only to learn that Sara had encountered health complications and the operation would have to be delayed. But they met Sara for the first time, visiting her in the hospital, and went out to eat with Dennis and Jane Healy.

"They're awesome," Amanda said of the Healys.

The transplant was rescheduled for Oct. 31., and this time it took place successfully.

Asked if she felt nervous going into it, Amanda said, "No, I was not. And I'm a nervous person. It was really surprising, but I was really calm over the whole thing and just knew that it was the right thing.

"I just really prayed about it."

Sara returned home Wednesday and Amanda the day before. It will take weeks for both women to regain their strength. Sara was told she could return to her job as a cook at the Benedictine Health Center in four to six weeks. Amanda plans to return to her job as a teacher's aide at a Williston school in four weeks.

When she first learned that a donor had come forward, "it was a good surprise," Sara said.

"I'm very grateful that she did this because I probably would have had to wait for a few more years if she hadn't stepped forward," she said.

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