By Adam Strunk
Before Jessie Wagoner goes under the knife Tuesday, she’ll undertake a familiar ritual.
She’ll draw the initials of her two children, Sylas and Selah, in hearts on her hands.
As she awaits the procedure to save her life, she will press her fingers to her palms and the initials.
“I keep squeezing them to hug them,” she said of the process.
Wagoner has been on the waitlist to receive a life-saving kidney transplant since May of 2021.
In the last 18 months, she’s gone under anesthesia 30 times. She’s had 52 different procedures to keep her alive until Tuesday, Nov. 21, when she’s scheduled to receive a transplant.
She credits God and her kids for getting her through the two-and-one-half years filled with 1,400 hours of dialyzes, illness, pain and so many false starts.
“There were so many times that I thought I can’t keep doing this anymore,” she said. “And it was just them that kept me going.”
Wagoner, 43, worked as a newspaper managing editor for Kansas Publishing Ventures before her kidneys failed and she grew ill.
“When this all started, I was so, so sick. I was just going to do hospice, and my doctor and [my sister] Heather convinced me to try dialysis for 30 days—if nothing else, to make a plan for the kids.”
She got on dialysis and soon adopted a new goal: to make it long enough that Selah, 3 at the time, would remember her.
“It really is a privilege to live in a time and place where I can have dialysis,” she said. “It has given me time.”
People wait on average for three to five years to receive a kidney.
“Not all those people last those three to five years,” Wagoner said.
The National Kidney Foundation reports that there are 786,000 Americans with kidney failure. More than 90,000 are on a waitlist for transplants. Each year, 25,000 transplants take place in the United States, and 5,000 people per year die awaiting a transplant that never comes. Another 5,000 get removed from the list for no longer being viable candidates.
Cardiovascular disease represents a large mortality factor for those with kidney failure. Failure weakens a person’s immune system, and due to frequent procedures and medical intervention, infection also poses a large risk.
In December of 2021, Harvey County Now published an article about Wagoner’s need for a kidney.
In total, she said she’s had 19 people contact KU Med to volunteer to donate for her, but many ended up quickly eliminated in the process.
“I’ve only had four that actually completed the testing and were found to be or not be a match,” she said. “They only test so many at a time.”
“God had an answer”
Bill Bush, who works as a reporter for Harvey County Now, read Wagoner’s story.
While the two were technically coworkers for a time, he said outside of a few messages and emails, he didn’t really know her.
“I read that, felt bad, tried to blow it off for about a week,” he said. “I made a lot of excuses.”
He said he considered that his children might need one of his kidneys in the future and then understood he must have faith in God to take care of his family.
“I figured hundreds of people would call,” he said. “Then I figured, ‘Why shouldn’t I?’ I thought, ‘Well, I’m not going to be a match.’ And then it was like, ‘So what’s the fear of calling, then?’ For every excuse, God had an answer.”
Bush called the number in the article and began a process of testing, evaluations and scheduling that would stretch nearly two years.
He said he was interviewed by multiple people. He took medical tests. He got a kit to evaluate his blood pressure. He was subject to multiple psychological evaluations. He said those were to determine, in part, his motivation for volunteering to donate a kidney from someone he wasn’t related to and didn’t have a prior relationship with.
“I don’t know how many times they asked me if I was getting paid to do it,” he said with a laugh. “I was like, ‘I wish.'”
After a flurry of testing and interviews, KU Med went quiet. Months passed by.
“I called back, and they said, ‘Well, the insurance is waiting, and we’ll let you know,’” he said. “And then like a year went by. I just kind of assumed they found someone who matched.”
“A full-time job”
Wagoner settled into life on the waiting list while raising her children and navigating a myriad of medical appointments.
She required dialysis to filter the fluid and waste from her blood and would make the drive from McPherson to Fresenius Kidney Care in Newton three times a week.
“It is like a full-time job,” she said.
She’d sit in a chair as machines cycled for four hours a day, a job her own body could no longer do. She said, after the process, she’d often feel wiped out and sick.
During her time waiting, she’d undertake work—Wagoner continues to write freelance articles. She also got to know the staff and other patients.
“I’ve made some lifelong relationships with some of those people,” she said.
Wagoner said there were usually three reasons people stopped coming for dialyses: they die, they can get a transplant or they make the decision to stop
“We had one last week that decided to stop. I always respect those decisions,” she said. “It’s still hard.”
As she awaited a transplant match, Wagoner continually kept getting ill, something that delayed the process.
“Getting on the list and staying on the list is really hard,” she said. “The longer you’re in kidney failure, the more it affects the other organs in your body.”
To be a candidate for transplant, doctors must evaluate a person to make sure they have a viable chance of surviving. Demand for kidneys outpaces supply.
Wagoner said she had to keep below a certain weight to be eligible for a transplant, something made difficult, as kidney disease leads to fluid retention.
Wagoner said her weight can fluctuate by more than 20 pounds between dialysis appointments. She said doctors still don’t know what her accurate weight might be and believe she might lose additional fluid she’s carrying with a working kidney.
“We’re really excited to see after transplant what I actually weigh,” she said with a laugh. “I’m thinking there might be a smoking hot body under here that I’ve never found in 43 years.”
Pulmonary hypertension caused by kidney failure can disqualify you from a transplant, Wagoner explained. Excess fluid often drives up blood pressure. Wagoner also faced this challenge.
At one point earlier this year, Wagoner underwent testing for pulmonary hypertension locally and then was told she’d have to instead get cleared by those doing the surgery. At the time, she didn’t believe such a testing appointment would be available until October, pushing back any possible transplant by months
“I got to dialysis and sat in the chair and cried,” she said.
“Now, I’m excited”
Meanwhile, Bush went about his life, working for the paper while dealing with a nagging shoulder injury from his time playing college baseball, then softball, swimming, and then as a pickleball aficionado.
Bush said he received a call in the spring of this year, asking if he still had interest in donating.
He underwent more rounds of testing. He then received a call in July, informing him he had matched.
“I think I knew before they called me it was going to happen,” he said. “Just in my gut, if you will.”
Meanwhile, as his shoulder continued to worsen, he learned he’d need surgical intervention to fix it.
“I was going to hold off on that as long as I can, as the kidney thing is more urgent,” he said.
But as the testing process continued to draw out, shoulder surgery became unavoidable. He was told he’d just have to wait six weeks after his surgery to be cleared to donate a kidney, something that is now possible.
Bush’s daughter will be with him on Tuesday when he donates his kidney. He will likely be released from the hospital a few days after his donation.
The Mayo Clinic states that there are few risks to a donor, and those who donate have similar life expectancies to those who do not.
“Most kidney donors recover with few to no problems,” the clinic stated.
Bush said he had not looked up any information about the risks associated with a donation, because he didn’t want to risk “chickening out.”
“God put me on this path, and it’s become clear,” he said. “I have no fear; I’m not worried; I’m not concerned. A few months ago, I was kind of nervous. Now, I’m excited.”
He said the entire process has also required him to think of life and even the small possibility he might have a worst-case scenario take place. He said that because of that in recent months, he’s gained an appreciation for life and how he spends each day.
“Honestly, I came to grips early on—OK, I might die,” he said. “I’d be OK with that. I am at peace with that. I know where I am going, and honestly, that’s a promotion. Honestly, now if you said there’s a 95 percent chance you’ll die but a 5 percent chance she’ll be better, I’d still do it.”
“I won’t have to be worried”
Wagoner learned of having a match in September and that her match was Bill Bush.
“It’s just huge that he’s doing this for me,” she said. “I don’t know how you adequately thank someone for that. I always tell my kids to just do the next right thing. Hopefully, when it’s my time and I’m asked, I can do the next right thing and help someone out somehow.”
She said the donation also means so much for her children.
Her son, Sylas, 15, sometimes helps care for her, and she said it’s been amazing to see how it’s impacted him.
“He said, ‘Just think. In a few more weeks, it won’t be like this. I won’t have to be worried about you going up the stairs,’” she said.
Her daughter, Selah, has other things on her mind.
The kids have long asked for a dog, and Wagoner has long told them no.
“I said, ‘No dog until I get a kidney.’ I can’t keep anything else alive,” she said. “’Seriously, I’m working to stay alive, kids.’”
She said she told Selah about the match during a conversation and who was providing her with a kidney.
She said Selah told her she loved Bill.
“All because of him, I’m going to get a dog,” she said Selah blurted out.
Wagoner said her children will get a healthy mom because of the donation, and yes, possibly a dog.
“It doesn’t compare”
Bush said Wagoner asked if she could share his story publicly. She’s provided regular updates to
friends and family about the process on social media.
Originally, he declined.
“I don’t want the attention, and I’m not doing it for that,” he said.
Though he did read some of her social media posts, especially the ones where Wagoner’s friends and family expressed joy she’d found a match.
“Just reading all of the posts of people who were celebrating with her and crying, I just broke down and wept—it was so powerful,” he said. “That’s when it was like, this was a really big deal.”
Bush said he first publicly spoke about his choice to donate at a service at Crossroads Community Church in Halstead.
He said usually someone will speak about a reading after service and the usual speaker declined to do so, and he ended up being asked to do so. Bush said the reading involved shedding one’s burden.
“It was a lot to carry, and I wasn’t acknowledging that even with myself,” he said. “I felt like God was telling me he orchestrated that moment.
Bush found himself speaking to the congregation about the experience and asking for their prayers. He said just speaking felt like a lifted burden, and he realized he spoke to the congregation so he’d be prepared to later share the story with a larger audience.
He said his wish was to encourage other people to consider donating kidneys.
Bush noted there were likely far more Christians in Harvey County than people in need of kidney transplants.
“If we’re serious about following Christ, there’s got to be that many people willing to do that for someone else,” he said.
He added he wasn’t trying to make anyone feel guilty. He said his eyes were closed to the situation until his experience.
Bush will donate a kidney, and if all goes right, a mother will be able to raise her two children and have a new lease on life. He called it a great opportunity to be able to do something like that.
“It’s a significant sacrifice. It’s a significant give, but it doesn’t compare to anything God did for us and what Jesus sacrificed for us,” he said.
“God wastes no hurt”
Wagoner seemed excited about the surgery when she was interviewed on Nov. 17 and also at peace with the process. As a recipient, she will face several risks. Her body will have to be able to handle the surgery. She’ll have a chance of her body rejecting the organ and being back to square one. She’ll have a suppressed immune system from the anti-rejection medication she’ll take for the rest of her life.
“Honestly, I feel like God’s brought me this far, it’s going to be fine. He hasn’t kept me alive for this long to have something not be OK,” she said.
The surgery will leave her two kidneys in her body and the donated kidney on her front lower abdomen. She said naming kidneys is common practice with those receiving donations. She said after much thought, she’s naming hers Will, in a nod to Bush and because it means “peace and determined protector.”
She said a kidney transplant is expected to last between 10 to 15 years, though with the improvement in methods, many people are seeing their kidneys last past the 20-year mark.
She’ll spend three to five days in the hospital and be in Kansas City for another two to three weeks for daily testing. The recovery period will be in the months.
Wagoner says she has plenty of things she’s looking forward to after she becomes healthy.
“I want to be the room mom at school,” she said. “I want to do PTO. I want to be with them. I’d like for Sylas to finish high school and not worry about hooking his mom up to the machine.”
She said the entire process has changed how she views life, her faith and the world around her.
“Everything is so much clearer for me as far as how I want to spend my time and what I value,” she said. “I don’t get caught up in the outside things anymore. I’m just caught up in my kids and the environment we want to live in—joy and laughter.”
She said she’s thought of tattooing her children’s initials on her hands after she’s healthy but understands that they’d fade. Instead, Wagoner will settle for years of real hugs made possible by one gift.
“I think God has put me in places that would allow Bill and my lives to intersect,” she said. “I feel like it’s central to it. Without His plan and that divine intervention, none of this would happen.”
She said she hoped her story would encourage more people to donate kidneys or even sign up to be organ donors so their kidneys could help someone else.
“Someone told me once that God wastes no hurt,” she said. “Maybe this helps someone else or maybe someone will donate or maybe this experience is only to have made me a better mom, but it hasn’t been wasted.”