Kidney donation adds new layer to lifelong friendship

They’ve been there for each other through trauma, trials and tribulations, as well as through joys and triumphs during a 27-year friendship begun in the school district with the same name: Frenship.

On Nov. 6, their friendship was tested once more.

A year ago, Jana Gardner became very ill.

“At that time, they told me I would probably have a year before I needed a (kidney) transplant,” said Gardner. Within a year, she would have to be on dialysis, unless she had a transplant.

She had known that one day, her kidneys could give out. In 1986, the same year she graduated from high school, she was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease.

“There really is no treatment,” said Gardner, noting that there are some promising drugs in development. “A lot of people have it that don’t know it… A lot of times, it’s not found until they do an autopsy.”

Seven people were tested to see if they could donate a kidney. Gardner’s best friend, Nancy Leal, was one of them. After extensive examinations, she was given the go-ahead to donate a kidney to Gardner.

“Nancy has always said she was put in my life for a reason, and that was a kidney,” said Gardner.

“I always knew, there was no question, that if I matched, it would be me,” said Leal. “It was a no-brainer. It was a decision that I made a long time ago.”

The two friends sat on Gardner’s couch Monday afternoon and talked about their friendship, polycystic kidney disease and what the transplant means for Gardner, who must wear a surgical mask until four weeks have passed since the surgery.

Gardner said she feels much better already since the transplant. While she has some side effects from the medications she is on, she will be gradually weaned from some, while others will be needed for the rest of her life.

“Until you’ve experienced it yourself, you can’t describe it. It’s a chance at life, a normal life,” said Gardner. Without the transplant, she would have been on dialysis within a matter of weeks, and that would have meant the end of her nursing career.

But Gardner said she is looking forward to returning to work at the end of three months.

Gardner said there are a variety of living donations people can make, such as bone marrow transplants. For her, because the kidney donation came from a live donor, she is expected to live with the kidney for longer.

Leal is still tired from her surgery to donate a kidney, but she said that is a normal reaction to major surgery. She will be returning to work next week.

Leal said one of her biggest fears was that she would not be allowed to donate the kidney.

“You’re afraid. You’re afraid they’ll say, ‘You can’t,’” said Leal.

The two friends met in August of 1981, when Leal’s family moved back to the Lubbock area and into Gardner’s neighborhood. Gardner, then Garrett, was a freshman at Frenship High School and Leal, then Langdon, was an eighth-grader.

As high school students, both were in the band. Gardner tried twirling for a time, while Leal was a twirler for three years. Gardner laughed when she said boys were one of her main extracurriculars, while Leal was on the basketball team.

After high school, both women attended South Plains College. Gardner obtained her nursing degree from the Methodist School of Nursing in 1990. Leal graduated from South Plains College in 1990 and obtained a bachelor of science in nursing from Lubbock Christian University in 2006.

Leal is now the pediatric department director at University Medical Center, while Gardner has worked for 20 years in the cardiac intensive care unit at Covenant Medical Center.

Through the years, Gardner and Leal’s life stages were not mirror images. Gardner has children who have already graduated and one currently in Frenship High School; Leal adopted a daughter six years ago who is now a first-grader at Bennett Elementary School.

“Our lives have kinda been in different spots,” said Gardner. “We’ve still managed to stay close.”

While Leal was there for the birth of Gardner’s children, Gardner was named the court-appointed advocate for Leal’s daughter at the time of her adoption.

“We’ve been closer than friends, almost family,” said Gardner.

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