Back to feeling good: Allie Walter thankful for the gift of life

Allie Walter recovering after transplant surgery with her kidney donor Ashlie Graham.

The final semesters for many college students can be very stressful. From staying up all night and cramming for finals, to worrying about post-graduation life and finding a career, many students experience varying levels of stress.

In 2014, Alison (Allie) Walter was a recent college graduate who had found herself struggling to accomplish basic tasks. As a junior at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York, she began waking up with migraines and was constantly tired. The nurses she saw at the school dismissed her symptoms as stress, much like typical university students experience.

After graduation, the symptoms worsened, and her nurses noticed high blood pressure which led her doctors to diagnose Walter with IgA Nephropathy, an autoimmune disease that was slowly causing her kidneys to fail. Doctors speculated that, at the time of her diagnosis, she had lived with the disease for 20 years, most of that without symptoms.

If she had been diagnosed earlier, she may have been able to treat the disease with a cocktail of immune-suppressants, keeping the disease in check and avoiding the need for a kidney transplant.

Unfortunately, in 2018, doctors at the University of Vermont Medical Center and the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota told Walter that the disease had progressed too far too fast, and her kidney function fell into the 20th percentile, and declining. She had to get help quickly.

“My doctor at UVM said he was not familiar with treatment options and my step-uncle worked for the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota,” Walter said. “I went there and we started looking for donors.”

Walter searched for donors who matched her O blood type, which presented problems because although A and B types can receive donations from O types, only O’s can donate to O’s which shrinks the available donor pool.

None of Walter’s family had matching blood types, except her mother who did not fit age and health requirements, and none of her friends passed the initial screenings. Her mother, Ellen Walter, owner of Blue Moon Clothing and Gifts in Brandon, reached out through social media to try to find a donor.

“I’m asking you to please, please consider giving Allie the gift of a healthy life,” she wrote on a Facebook post. The Addison Independent published a story about Walter’s search for a new kidney and last month, thanks to Burlington-resident Ashlie Graham, who works for Seventh Generation, Walter received her new kidney.

“My best friend from college was dating this guy and they were at dinner with his sister, Ashlie,” Walter said. “Ashlie told my friend, ‘I saw an article in the Addison Independent about this girl who is looking for a kidney and I applied to donate.’”

Graham and Walter had previously met on a couple of occasions, but it never occurred to Graham that she knew the woman looking for a kidney before she offered to donate hers.

“The fact that she needed a kidney and I could help was really my only motivation,” said Graham. “I’m a pretty active person and just the thought of someone not being able to be healthy and active pushed me to donate.”

Walter and Graham were together throughout the surgery and she is thankful for Graham’s kindness.

“I feel like she has given me a second chance at life,” Walter said. “It’s so nice to be able to do things I haven’t been able to for so long, I feel great.”

Walter said she would like to thank the newspaper for writing the first article that inspired Graham to actually donate.

“That’s huge,” Walter said. “It would have taken so much longer to find a suitable kidney otherwise and the amazing community support that it brought was incredible. I think everyone’s well wishes really did help because I was ready to go after 10 days, which is nothing short of a miracle.”

Graham said her employer was very helpful when it came to the procedure and everything it entailed. Seventh Generation is owned by Unilever and months before an employee in the company needed a liver. They were able to find the employee a kidney from within the company and therefore, they were very accommodating when she needed time off for the surgery.

“The first couple days were awful,” Graham said, “but I ran six miles today after lunch and feel great.”

Graham and Walter went through pre-op procedures on Friday, March 15, and on Monday morning doctors took Graham’s kidney out and placed it into Walter. Graham spent two days in an Intensive Care recovery unit with the only complication being that she was a runner and her resting heart rate was so naturally low, she kept setting off the heart monitor when she went to sleep.

Walter took a bit longer to recover from the surgery. One whole day longer, but by day two she was walking the full length of the hallway from her ICU room to Graham’s to visit. The surgery took place on March 18, and she left the Mayo Clinic on April 1.

“There really aren’t enough words to express what Ashlie has given me,” Walter said. “As I told her last week, my life is really like night and day. With kidney disease you really have no idea how sick you are until you’re better.”

Walter is not completely out of the woods, however. She still has months before they will be certain her body won’t reject the new kidney and she has to have lab tests once a week for four months, followed by a biopsy.

“In some ways, being sick for five years actually helped after the transplant,” Walter said. “After a transplant you have to take your medication on time every day and I was already doing that.”

The medication she continues to take for immunosuppression should make sure her IgA progresses even slower, but because it is in her blood, there is still a chance the new kidney could fail also.

“The doctors said that a living donor kidney should last 10 to 25 years on average,” Walter said, before laughing and adding: “I hope I got one of the 40-year kidneys.”

She said she realizes now how sick she was, and how, after living with it so long, feeling bad got to feel normal. She said she feels much better now and takes walks before work, sometimes a couple of miles long.

Walter is working at the Brandon clothing store Indu now, but she is looking into careers in the public health system.

“I’ve applied for an internship with the Department of Health, for the WIC program,” Walter said. “I’m very interested in patient advocacy.”

Now that she doesn’t have to worry about her kidney failing, she can get back to normal post-graduation worries like finding a career, although she is trying not to focus on the fact that she may have to go through this whole process again in a decade or two.“I try not to think about it,” Walter said. “You just have to keep going one step at a time.”

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