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W.Va. paramedic saved Marine’s life, 7 years later saved his daughter

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By Anya Sostek
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

RITCHIE COUNTY, W.Va. — Last March, Molly Jones decided to share an unusually personal post on her Facebook page. After living a healthy life despite lifelong kidney disease, she had suddenly gone into kidney failure.

“I have a 15-year-old, and I don’t want to miss a thing with her!” posted Jones, of Belpre, Ohio. “I am being realistic. That is what I want people to realize. Dialysis buys me a little time… A transplant will bless me with YEARS! Please, donate life!”

Five hours after her post, Jones got a comment from a Facebook friend, Kristi Hadfield, who she had never met in person.

“How do I find out if I am a match?” Hadfield asked.

Though Hadfield and Jones had never met, they had been Facebook friends for six years.

Their relationship started in 2016, when Hadfield was working as a paramedic in rural Ritchie County, West Virginia. Jones’ father, John Cunningham, came into the Ritchie County Ambulance Authority one night on his way to work security at a club, telling Hadfield that something wasn’t right.

Hadfield put him in an ambulance to start running tests, figuring he’d need to be checked out completely at a hospital 45 minutes away. In the ambulance, Cunningham went into cardiac arrest. Hadfield had the ambulance driver pull over as they worked together on the side of the road to save Cunningham. Through chest compressions, Hadfield successfully restarted his heart.

After Hadfield left him at the hospital, she sent him a Facebook friend request.

“I wanted to check up on him,” she said, “because I had no idea how he was doing.”

And when Jones — whose mother had died just months before, as the donor kidney she’d had for 18 years began to fail — saw that Hadfield reached out to her father, she sent Hadfield a friend request as well. “We live in a very small town,” she said. “I wanted to know who saved my dad.”

Cunningham, a former Marine, is now 72 with excellent heart function and an exercise regimen that includes daily pushups. As he recovered, Jones and Hadfield developed a friendship over Facebook, sharing silly jokes and memes back and forth.

Jones, 42, suffers from a congenital condition called autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease (ADPKD), a disorder in which fluid-filled cysts develop in both kidneys. Jones’ mother had it, as did her great-grandfather and grandmother. Her daughter, Vivi, now 16, has done it well.

More than 50% of people with the disease will go into kidney failure by age 50, according to the PKD Foundation and, once in kidney failure, dialysis or transplant is the only treatment.

Until January 2022, Jones had lived a healthy life with ADPKD, coaching her daughter’s soccer team, walking three miles a day and working full time. Suddenly, she started to get bad headaches and sometimes felt as though her heart was racing. She checked her blood pressure one day and was shocked to see it was 219 over 193. Thinking she just needed to get her blood pressure under control, she went to the emergency room, where a doctor informed her that she was in Stage 4 renal failure .

Working with a nephrologist, she tried medications and diet changes. “It seemed like whatever I did, the function just kept dropping and dropping and dropping,” she said. Stage 4 renal failure quickly turned into Stage 5 — the most severe — and Jones was hit with nausea and vomiting so severe that she couldn’t get enough nutrients. Her swelling was so bad that she could press a finger into her leg and an indentation would remain when she removed it.

Through Facebook, Hadfield, of Pennsboro, West Virginia, followed her story in bits and pieces.

“This family has just, gosh, they got a piece of my heart,” said Hadfield, 56. “I get emotionally impacted by the patients that I’ve had and this family was just incredible. My kids are grown and I have grandkids now, but I wanted her to be able to see her daughter grow. I wanted her to be able to hold her grandkids.”

Hadfield messaged Jones to ask about her blood type and found out they were both A+. In July, Jones was officially placed on the transplant list. And right away, Hadfield began the process of trying to donate his kidney.

“You check the box on your license that you want to do it but you never think about actually doing it,” he said. “But this was never a question of if I could — it was just when.”

Living kidney donors make up about 50% of UPMC’s kidney donation volume, said Amit Tevar, surgical director for the Kidney and Pancreas Transplantation Program at UPMC’s Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute. Living donors are preferable because the organs being transplanted are often healthier, he said, and surgeons have more flexibility in terms of an optimal timeline.

Donors can also get organs much faster that way. The current wait time for a kidney from a dead donor is 5 1/2 years, he said.

Living donors are put through rigorous testing to make sure that they have no health issues that would compromise either their donor kidney or their own health. For months, Hadfield underwent testing. And Jones continued to decline.

In September, Jones was deemed sick enough for dialysis, but couldn’t do traditional hemodialysis because of a blood clotting disorder. Instead, she had to do dialysis through a tube in her belly, which never functioned properly in her case.

Her father moved into her house to help care for her. As a single mother, Jones started to think about arrangements for who could take custody of her daughter.

And Hadfield kept her posted on the progress of the transplant, as she passed test after test.

“There were so many days when I was so weak and so sick and she’d send me these messages to help keep me going,” she said. “The days when I had my head in the toilet and you thought, ‘How am I going to get out of bed today? How am I going to make sure my kid eats today?’ She gave me a little bit of strength when I needed it.”

Finally, in December, the two met face to face for a final compatibility check about a week before the transplant. Cunningham came to the appointment as well and got to see Hadfield again, and meet her husband. There were hugs all around — and a lot of tears.

As the days ticked toward the transplant, Jones had trouble believing that this transplant would actually happen. “I wanted so bad for it to be real but I was so afraid to hope — I was scared that it was too good to be true, that something was going to happen outside of her control at the last minute,” she said.

on Dec. 27, everything went as planned. Tevar transplanted one of Hadfield’s kidneys into Jones and almost immediately, his kidney function returned.

“It’s like she’s our guardian angel,” said Jones. “She is an absolute blessing. Because of her, I will get to see my daughter graduate from high school. I got to see my 42nd birthday, which I wouldn’t have gotten to.”

Even by the standards of selfless organ donations that Tevar saw on a daily basis, this operation stood out.

“I see and hear a lot of great stories and this is one of the most remarkable ones I’ve ever heard,” he said. “An EMT who saved one life already is now saving that patient’s daughter’s life?”

Jones and Hadfield haven’t seen each other since the surgery, and Jones has largely avoided social gatherings while her compromised immune system is recovering from the transplant.

They plan to have a party in December for the one-year anniversary of the new kidney, which Jones calls “the bean.” And at that time, they hope to introduce the rest of their forever-connected families.

“Our grandson that lives with us said that if Vivi ever needs a kidney, just let him know,” said Hadfield. “He just turned 15.”

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