Jenny Stansel, 38, is an Alaska Airlines flight attendant who has been living with chronic kidney disease, caused by the condition Lupus, for the last 15 years. But her life has recently taken an amazing and unexpected turn in the form of the ultimate life-giving gift.
Having undergone seven surgeries and seven trips to the emergency room, Stansel was diagnosed with end-stage renal (kidney) disease in March last year, meaning she was given the choice to undergo dialysis or face certain death. She was enduring ten hours of dialysis every single night, before her friend and colleague at Alaska Airlines, Captain Jodi Harskamp, stepped in with an offer to help.
And what she did was truly amazing. Harskamp donated a kidney to Stansel, in an emotional and selfless gesture that will both prolong and vastly improve Stansel’s life. Originally from Fairbanks, Jenny moved to Anchorage in 1999 with her three children. Harskamp, 41, is married with two young children and moved to Anchorage in 2006 from the Bay Area in California.
Through this one act, their lives will forever be linked. But the bonds of friendship had already been forged four years previously. Both women’s lives have certainly seen their fair share of upset and difficulty and Harskamp too had needed a friend to help her through.
And that time came four years ago when Harskamp’s home burned to the ground. Colleagues had shown up at her temporary housing every night for weeks with meals and support for the airline pilot and her family. But Stansel was one of the first to arrive, lasagne and wine in hand, and her kindness helped the family re-build their lives.
Now Captain Harskamp is paying that kindness forward in the most incredible way she can. Ultimately, the house fire was what brought Harskamp to her decision to become an organ donor for her friend. She never forgot the help and support that Stansel had shown her and her family.
Stansel can’t remember what it feels like to be healthy. For more than a decade, she’s managed her kidney disease through diet, exercise and self-care and was able to keep working as a flight attendant as a result.
But in March 2016, Stansel went from working on a flight, to a trip to the emergency room where she was told that had she not come in, she would have had only days to live. From that point on, Stansel stopped working and began ongoing dialysis.
Kidneys are vital to sustaining life. About the size of a fist, they remove waste, regulate salt and potassium levels, and control red blood cell production, among other tasks in the body.
When kidneys stop functioning properly, waste and excess fluid can build up in the body, creating a variety of problems. There are more than 98,000 people in the US waiting for a kidney transplant, according to US Department of Health and Human Services data.
Luckily, you only need one healthy kidney to live, making transplants from a living donor possible, and which led Stansel on the path to Harskamp. Following her diagnosis, she had let every Anchorage-based Alaska Airlines employee know she was looking for a kidney donor.
And as if this story couldn’t get any more incredible, there’s another revelation in store for you! Harskamp was one of the first people to sign up. She was adamant that she would be the one to donate, and it turned out that both women are O-positive and, therefore, a perfect match, and the only viable match!
Harskamp gave her colleague the opportunity of a new life by giving her one of her own kidneys. Her gesture is even more amazing when you realise that such procedures come with their own risks to the donor, and Harskamp herself was out of work for some eight weeks.
The pair were required to spend several weeks away from home being cared for 24/7, undergoing daily observations and testing. They’ve flown the skies together and almost exactly a year after Stansel first learned how sick she really was, the two friends were side by side once more. But this time, they were on operating tables at the Swedish Organ Transplant Center in Seattle.
For Harskamp, her friend is worth the risks and that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Stansel. She has called Harskamp her hero and will be forever grateful for the sacrifice her friend has made for her, as well as the kindness and care she has shown her.
Both women hope that their story will inspire others to consider organ donation. Nearly 120,000 Americans are in need of a life-saving organ transplant, with nearly 100,000 waiting for a kidney. Twelve people die every day waiting for a kidney.
While the two women were waiting for the operation they considered what name they should bestow upon the life-saving organ. Suggestions included ‘Jo-Diva’, a combination of Harskamp’s first name ‘Jodi’ and ‘diva’!
Any surgery has the potential for complications and Harskamp certainly did her homework when considering the risks. She talked to numerous kidney donors, including, interestingly, seven other pilots, all of whom have been able to return to work.
Harskamp’s family all supported her decision to donate, but it was her consideration of the greater good, beyond herself as an individual, that inspired her decision. She was also prompted by her experience of the house fire all those years previously, and Stansel’s own willingness to help her in her time of need.
All in all, after a lot of consideration and soul-searching, she decided that the reward in being a living donor far out-weighted the risk. The two women have a connection that goes far beyond the ties of your average friendship.
Despite the risks, costs and potential complications, the two women were happy to have been on this journey together. It was a life-changing experience for both of them.
Harskamp got to see her gift heal her close friend, extending and improving her life beyond all measure. And Stansel? She got to live!