Former basketball star, woman, veteran shine light on living organ donation

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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Side-by-side, Rosina Houle and Alonzo Jamison appear an unlikely pair. The petite woman seemed to look straight up as she chatted with the former University of Kansas basketball star.

But their friendship is forged from the most personal of bonds: kidney failure and the wait for an organ donor.

Rosina's sister, Jessie, was diagnosed with kidney disease at 18-years-old. Their mother was a living donor for a new kidney when Jessie was 40-years-old, but, more than 15 years later, it was failing.

"It was truly the hardest thing that you have to do: to sit and watch someone just completely just deteriorate," Rosina said.

Alonzo was an elite college athlete, a star of the Kansas Jayhawks 1991 Final Four run. But diabetes ran rampant in his family.

"When I was playing, it was kept in check. I was running on a daily basis, and once you do that much exercising, that's going to keep diabetes in check," Alonzo said. "My mom had went through all of this - she lost a limb - and it just never registered to me that it was going to happen to me."

Three years ago, when Alonzo was 45-years-old, his wife, Colleen, insisted he see a doctor. Two weeks later, he had a PD catheter placed, so he could begin peritoneal dialysis.

It was an immediate start to an hours-long, daily procedure so a machine could do what his kidneys couldn't anymore - clean his blood. It also earned him an immediate spot, with Rosina's sister and nearly 100,000 other Americans, on the waiting list for a kidney transplant.

Dr. Scott Solcher, a nephrologist with the Cotton-O'Neil Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, was among those involved with Alonzo's care.

"If he wasn't doing some dialysis, he would have died," Solcher said, adding the same is true of all people with advanced kidney failure.

Solcher said, like all organs, there's a huge gap between need and numbers of donors. But unlike a heart, for example, people have two kidneys and can get by with one, so a healthy, living person can give a kidney to someone in need.

"Dialysis is a huge burden," he said. "If you could get rid of that for somebody, it's just miraculous. They feel better. They're back to work. They are going to live longer."

Still, with no true national registry for it, most living donors are found through families or word of mouth.

"Only one out of three (kidney) transplants currently in the United States are living donors," Solcher said.

With no family match this time around, and, seeing the wait take a toll on her sister, Rosina formed Save a Life, Inc., to cast a wider net of awareness about the need for living donors.

"We can solve this problem," Rosina said. "We have to go out, we have to be able to get people to understand what a living donor is."

As Alonzo joined in spreading that message, an Army veteran in Wichita, Shekinah Bailey, saw his story on Facebook.

"He was shackled to a machine every single day. I just can't even imagine," Shekinah said. "He had less of a battery life than an iPhone. There's something about that that's not right."

Shekinah had never met Alonzo, was only a casual acquaintance of his wife through work connections, but he reached out.

"I knew I couldn't look in the mirror if I didn't do this," Shekinah said. "I think in a moral society, we should step forward and say, 'Here's my kidney,' not, 'Here's some money from my taxes to pay for your machine.'"

They were a match. On January 24th, 2017, surgeons at University of Kansas Health System took one of Shekinah's kidneys and transplanted it in Alonzo.

"It's a complete 180. (I owe him) my life," Alonzo said. "He just doesn't know and I can't put it into words, but I think he knows he's done a hell of a thing for me."

The two say they are now brothers for life; Alonzo even took Shekinah to his first KU basketball game. But Shekinah shrugs off any suggestion that he is a hero.

"It's a huge benefit for him. It's not a huge sacrifice for me; I gave up ibuprofen," he said.

Rosina knows how huge gift was. Three weeks earlier, her sister lost her fight still waiting. But walking now with Alonzo, Rosina said, Jessie's voice lives on with every story heard, every life saved.

"Seeing where these people are and then seeing the life they have been given - it's just completely different," she said. "This is a problem and we need to fix it and we can - and you can help."

The University of Kansas Health System has a living donor program. If you want to learn more, visit their web page. You can learn about Rosina's efforts at the Save a Life, Inc. web page.

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