Stepping onto the stage with the spotlight shining down on her, Lakyn Barnard, a 22-year-old pageant queen from Swanton, Maryland, gazed into the crowd during the 2017 Miss Maryland pageant.
She could feel her heart pound as she looked out at the sea of faces, but began to smile as she locked eyes with Kaylene Willis. It was just four weeks prior to that moment that Barnard traded her pageant gown for a hospital gown to give her 21-year-old cousin a lifesaving gift – a kidney.
“In that moment, everything came full circle,” Barnard said. “It was all for Kaylene.”
When Willis was about 8 months old, she was diagnosed with a rare kidney disease known as hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which affects the blood and blood vessels, and can lead to the destruction of blood platelets, ultimately leading to kidney failure.
“They told me I would need a kidney transplant someday, but they didn’t really know when,” Willis said.
It wasn’t until Barnard was 12 years old that she began to truly understand what her cousin had to endure. With each hospital visit and additional prescription, her heart broke more and more, so she made a promise that, even at such a young age, she fully intended to keep.
“I told my family that when it came down to it, I would be the one who would donate my kidney to her,” Barnard said.
Little did she know that 10 years later, she would have the chance to carry out that promise.
The Journey to Transplant
As Willis’ illness became more aggressive during her senior year of high school, she needed a kidney transplant faster than she originally thought. However, an unexpected obstacle came up that made Barnard’s promise of being a donor impossible to keep.
“At first, my family and I were told that we couldn’t be donors because HUS is a genetic disease,” Barnard said. “My heart sank when I heard that news.”
As her illness progressed, Willis soon transferred from a hospital near her hometown in Keyser, West Virginia, to UPMC Montefiore. In Pittsburgh, the family was informed they would now be able to apply to be her organ donor, which meant Barnard could fulfill her promise.
“I went on the UPMC living donor website and started reading about donation and what all it might entail for my future,” Barnard said. “I quickly discovered that my life would not be altered in any way, shape or form, and I knew that this is what I was made to do.”
Barnard soon received a call saying she was a potential candidate, and after a slew of tests and what seemed like a lifetime of waiting, the results were in.
She was a perfect match.
The official day of the surgery was May 23, 2017, and both Barnard and Willis were nervous about the outcome.
Despite the potential risks, part of why Barnard wanted to be Willis’ donor was to be able to fully empathize with the treatments and hospital stays she’s endured throughout her life.
“I have been healthy for 22 years, so I’ve never known what it’s been like to stay in the hospital overnight,” said Barnard. “That has been Kaylene’s life for 20 years.”
Even though it was her first time in the operating room, Barnard said she felt perfectly comfortable and safe thanks to her surgeon, Dr. Amit Tevar, surgical director of kidney and pancreas transplantation at UPMC, along with the rest of the surgical team.
“I had no problem putting all of my trust in my doctor’s and team’s hands,” Barnard said.
And, as someone who has spent a lot of time in various medical facilities, Willis, was very impressed with the quality of care she received at UPMC.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better team of doctors and nurses,” Willis said.
Barnard was released just two days after surgery, and Willis was released one week later.
Tevar said this is an average release time for kidney transplant patients.
“Especially when it comes to the donor, the turnaround after kidney transplant surgery is impeccably quick,” Tevar said. “This allows patients to return to normal life, quicker.”
The Healing Process
Barnard started performing in beauty pageants in 2011, and for her, nothing — not even having a kidney removed four weeks prior — was going to stop her from participating in the 2017 Miss Maryland pageant.
“Physically, she was more than ready to be in the pageant at that point,” Tevar said. “But, even if she wasn’t, no one can hold Lakyn down. That’s just who she is.”
Barnard’s main goal for the pageant was to promote her new platform, “Live Life, Give Life,” in honor of her experience in being a living donor. Although she didn’t end up placing in the top 10, she still felt like a winner.
“I told myself going into it that no matter what happened, I would be the first girl at Miss Maryland to state that she was a living donor, not to mention being only four weeks out from surgery,” Barnard said. “I was also the only one that was able to say that she had saved someone else’s life. I was a peace with knowing that I didn’t have to be Miss Maryland to show that I am a good person.”
Having Willis’ support in the crowd meant the world to Barnard, but for Willis, it was the first step in learning how to say two very important words – “Thank You.”
Before the surgery, the only thing that Willis and Barnard had in common was their bloodline. They lived in different states and shared almost none of the same interests,
Now, they share a special bond.
“Ever since the surgery, Kaylene is different,” Barnard said. “She has this beautiful glow to her, she carries herself differently, she has much more pep in her step, and she now likes wearing makeup.
“Because I’ve always been the more girly one, my family calls the kidney I gave to her the ‘glam kidney.’ Of course, I know it’s a joke, but part of me likes to think I made an impact on her.”
For more information about living donor transplant, click here.