BADEN — Instead of receiving a gift on her birthday, Lisa Tyson gave one.
Tyson, who is a Ryan Gloyer Middle School eighth-grade reading teacher and softball coach, donated her kidney to a neighbor — Donna Francis of Baden — who was a stranger at the time.
“I call it my smacked in the face by God moment,” said Tyson, 52. “Without thinking and without hesitation, I said, 'You can have one of mine.' ”
Francis, 66, referred to Tyson as her “angel” for her donation.
“She made a huge sacrifice,” said Francis. “She gave me a kidney, she gave me a life, and now I feel like she has my heart and I have hers.”
National Donor Day is observed every year on Feb. 14, Valentine's Day. It is designed to spread awareness and education about organ, eye and tissue donation and to recognize those who have given and received the gift of life through a donation, are waiting for a life-saving transplant or who died waiting for a donated organ.
“I feel like everyone comes into each others' lives for a reason,” Tyson said.
Francis learned she was in stage 3 kidney failure in 2013 after her blood work was completed for her lumbar laminectomy surgery for spinal stenosis.
“I had no clue I had a kidney problem. There were no symptoms,” she said.
A history of high blood pressure, heavy lifting in her 35-year career as an inventory specialist for Heritage Valley Beaver and time spent sitting for computer work might have caused her renal failure.
At the age of 30, she went on blood pressure medication. High blood pressure runs in her family.
After her back surgery, Francis went on disability because her doctor did not clear her for work.
At that point, she found a nephrologist, a kidney specialist.
In February 2018, she was diagnosed with stage 4 kidney failure and her doctor asked if she wanted to be on the transplant list. Her kidney function went down to 14 percent.
If Francis did not get a kidney, she would have to go on dialysis three times a week for three hours, she said.
“I blocked it out of my mind,” she said. “Every time I thought about it, I actually had anxiety. I would get so nervous just thinking about it.”
That is when she registered with the transplant clinic.
Months later in April 2018, she was notified she was a candidate. However, she was told it could take five to seven years to receive a kidney.
“I'd cry every time I'd think about it,” Francis said. She got a part-time job during the summer at Marshalls to keep her mind off the waiting period.
Several family members offered to donate a kidney, Francis said. However, she did not accept.
At the time, she lived in Ohioville in the home she and her husband built in 1978 and in which they raised their two sons and spent time with their grandchildren.
“I was having a very hard time climbing the steps in our home,” she said. “I couldn't even carry a gallon of milk. I just felt like I was going to fall over.”
In October 2018, they sold the family home after the kidney worsened over a period of five years, Francis said.
“Paul knew I was getting worse, and I had to find a home on one floor,” she said of her husband, who would have to leave behind his garden and passion for tending it. “I knew he was going to be sad. No matter where we went, he never said that to me.”
On Dec. 8, 2018, the couple moved into a home in a complex in Baden.
That December, Tyson, who is athletic and active, watched the television show “American Ninja Warrior.” Francis moved in nearby, unbeknownst to Tyson.
On the episode, one participant, who wore a telephone number people could call for information on organ donation, donated an organ to his friend in the audience, Tyson said.
“I remember thinking, 'I would do that in a heartbeat,' ” she said, noting that the donor could take part in the physical challenge after the transplant. “How amazing would that be to save somebody's life?”
But she didn't give organ donation any further thought at the time.
In the summer of 2019, Francis and Tyson, who lived two blocks from each other, met at the swimming pool.
They became acquaintances and occasionally saw each other at the mailboxes at the complex entrance near Francis' home.
That fateful day
Tyson saw Francis in her garden when she picked up her mail on Aug. 9, her birthday, and asked how she was doing.
Francis said she had just come home from another doctor's appointment, and that she was in stage 5 kidney failure — which she had learned the day before. Her kidney function had dropped to 12 percent.
“I never told anyone about my kidney problem,” Francis said. “I don't know what made me open up to her, because I never told any of the other neighbors.”
Tyson said she was stunned.
“I almost fell over. It felt like somebody punched me in the face,” Tyson said. “You can't tell somebody (something) like that and walk way.”
Francis told her she would need a transplant or would be on dialysis by Christmas, prompting Tyson to tell her she could have one of her kidneys.
Francis insisted that Tyson think about the decision.
“What's to know?” Tyson told her. “You are a human being who needs something, and I have what you need.”
Francis cried, hugged Tyson and called her an “angel” about 20 times, Tyson said.
“Let me know what I need to do,” she said.
That night, Tyson found Francis on the donor website and told her family about her choice during her birthday dinner at a restaurant. Her family ultimately supported her altruistic act.
“I feel like I was the one giving a gift in that moment,” Tyson said. “I felt like, what an amazing thing, what a beautiful thing to do.”
After multiple tests, it was determined they were a match.
The transplant took place Dec. 10 at UPMC Montefiore in Pittsburgh. Tyson's right kidney was placed in Francis' right side.
Tyson was taken into surgery at 1:30 p.m. and came out four hours later. About 40 minutes later, Francis was taken at 5:30 p.m. for her four-hour surgery in the operating room next to Tyson's room.
Tyson's kidney was larger than doctors originally thought, which is why she has an 8-inch scar.
The two were discharged three days later.
Life after surgery
Tyson, who had never had major surgery, was in pain for three days following the operation.
Three weeks after surgery, she was allowed to walk. Before surgery, Tyson worked out on a treadmill followed by weight and circuit routines daily before she went to work.
She was allowed to return to work five weeks after the surgery, just in time for softball conditioning.
The day of the surgery, she sent a video to be played for her students that told the story of her kidney donation. After they watched it, Tyson received flowers, cards, video updates and candy.
“I needed them to know I was OK,” she said. “I needed to tell them the story and why I did what I did because I thought it would be a valuable teaching lesson.”
On her first day back in the Seneca Valley School District classroom, Tyson was greeted by a line of hugs from her students.
“The ultimate gift a teacher can receive is that kind of love from her students,” she said. “This group will always hold a special place with me.”
She hopes to deliver a message of hope to her students and has since discussed organ donation with them.
Francis no longer takes blood pressure medication.
“I feel like a new person,” she said.
Daily, she takes 16 anti-rejection medications and medication to prevent infection.
Tyson and Francis are now good friends.
The two — Francis calls Tyson her “kidney twin” — text often and plan to hang out in the summer at the pool.
Tyson does not consider herself a hero.
“There are so many people who do bigger and better and greater and braver things,” she said. “To me, this was three days of sacrifice, and then after that it was a healing process. I knew that right down the road, somebody was living a better life, so it was OK that I had a little bit of discomfort.”
The experience was life changing, Tyson said.
“We're always reminded about how fragile and precious life is, but I think it just made it kick home now that I gave a piece of me, a literal part of me to somebody else to realize that we're all capable,” she said. “It doesn't have to be a literal part, you can give yourself to somebody else and make a difference without having surgery — be kind and compassionate.”