Brentwood resident Michael Smalley looked for a kidney donor across several states. His donor will be Kim Gawrys, who also lives in Brentwood. / Photo courtesy of Julie Smalley
By MATT BLOIS
After searching across the country, a Brentwood resident who needs a kidney transplant found a donor close to home.
Michael Smalley grew up in Brentwood and now works in Information Technology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Smalley has lupus and has been sick since he was about 18.
Last fall, his kidneys suddenly failed. His wife, Julie Smalley, said he ended up in an intensive care unit.
“Our world just stopped and turned upside down in a moment,” she said. “We weren’t prepared. We knew one day his kidneys would fail, but we weren’t prepared and we didn’t know what it was going to be like when that happened.”
Within a month, doctors said Michael needed a transplant. They scheduled a surgery so Michael could start dialysis while the family searched for a new kidney.
Early last year, the Smalley family started looking for a donor. Friends and family members had their blood tested to see if they could donate a kidney, but the Smalleys didn’t find a match right away.
The family published an announcement on social media trying to find someone who could donate a kidney. About 100 people applied to be a donor.
“(The doctors) said social media is how you’re going to find this kidney,” Julie Smalley said. “Sharing your story is how it gets out there.”
In February, Brentwood resident Kim Gawrys, a friend of Julie Smalley, decided to get her blood tested. Before walking in, Gawrys said she felt certain for some reason that she would end up donating the kidney. She decided to go regardless.
“I always tell my kids if they’re walking by a piece of trash on the street, if they don’t pick it up, who do they expect to pick it up?” she said. “If they don’t have family who’s matching … then who’s going to help them? I thought I needed to do what I’ve been telling my kids to do.”
Her blood work showed she could be a match, but doctors were looking at other donors as well. They wanted to find the best-possible candidate. For months, Gawrys didn’t hear anything.
In July, a doctor called and told Gawrys she was one of the best matches available. Other friends and family had stepped up, but had all been eliminated as ideal donors.
The night Gawrys found out she was likely going to be a donor the Smalley family walked to the Brentwood Country club subdivision to watch July 4 fireworks. They had no idea that Gawrys had been selected.
“You’re looking all the way to California, up to New York and Pennsylvania. My college friends, my high school friends, everybody was trying. Strangers were trying,” she said. “And it was my best friend who lives in Brentwood that rose to the top.”
Gawrys went to Vanderbilt University Medical Center for more testing. The tests confirmed she was a good match. She spent some time with her newborn grandchild before scheduling the transplant. Donors have a long recovery time after surgery.
Now, both Michael Smalley and Gawrys say they’re ready for the operation, which takes place on Tuesday.
“Once I actually matched, the anticipation feels kind of like Christmas, where you’re waiting for Christmas to hurry and get here,” Gawrys said. “You’re excited. Not nervous, just wanting it to get here.”
Julie Smalley said the whole experience has made her an advocate for organ donation. She said she wanted to tell her husband’s story so people would know how an organ donor had helped her family.
“You become and advocate for it when it hits so close to home,” she said. “This has just wrapped us up. We just feel very passionate that we need to tell his story.”
She said anyone interested in organ donation should start by checking the organ donor box on their driver license. Potential donors can also contact the Vanderbilt Transplant Center by calling 615-936-0695.
Michael Smalley has taken time away from work leading up to the surgery, and Julie Smalley plans to take time off during his recovery. A family friend started a Go Fund Me page to help the family with medical costs and living expenses after the surgery.
The Smalleys are hosting an informal get together at Moe’s Original Bar B Que in Cool Springs starting at 5:30 p.m. on November 3. Friends can stop by to wish the family well, give hugs or pray. The family plans to eat BBQ and watch the Alabama football game.