First they were strangers on wrenching parallel odysseys, their children requiring multiple dialysis treatments each week as a bridge to a kidney-liver transplant. Over time, as they spent long hours together at UC San Francisco Medical Center's pediatric dialysis unit, Kristi Ouimet and Kim Welch became acquaintances, then friends. They had plenty to talk about, and plenty that didn't need to be said because it was understood.
Finally, as their wait for organs dragged from weeks to months, the mothers in arms came to embrace a shared dream.
"We were always talking about, what if we could share a donor?" said Ouimet, an Antioch resident. "Neither one of us wanted the other to have to wait while we got organs.
It was a nice thought. Then in January, Alyssa Welch, 15, born with autosomal recessive polycystic kidney disease, a hereditary condition that affects 1 in 20,000 live births, received a liver and kidney from a deceased donor.
The organs were directed specifically to the teenager by the donor's family, a friend of a friend. That allowed Alyssa to bypass everyone above her on the liver transplant list -- including Ouimet's 2-year-old son, Matthew.
The organs were a perfect match for Alyssa, and the transplant surgery was a success. She is recovering at home in her small Central Valley hometown of Riverbank. Kristi Ouimet and Kim Welch, bonded by the empathy distilled
"I said to her, 'These organs could have been Matthew's,'" Welch said. "I get what she's going through. When you hear that somebody else got a transplant, you're so happy. But then you're also: When is it our turn? It's a very selfish thing to say. But it's a normal feeling."
Countered Ouimet: "It wasn't Matthew's time; it was Alyssa's time. There's no doubt in my mind that this is the way it was supposed to be."
Matthew was born with primary hyperoxaluria Type 1, a rare hereditary condition that leaves the liver unable to remove oxalates from the blood and puts other organs, such as kidneys, at risk. Twenty months after he experienced end-stage renal failure and 13 months after he was placed on the liver transplant list, he is still waiting for a miracle. Three times the Ouimets were told organs were available, but each time doctors determined they weren't a suitable match.
As he was when readers of this newspaper were introduced to him in November, Matthew is in robust health for someone who has to endure dialysis six days a week. His lab test results are mostly good. So doctors are comfortable waiting for organs that are a perfect match.
The wait isn't entirely painless. The family still drives more than 2,000 miles each month ferrying Matthew to and from his dialysis treatments. Kristi still gives Matthew a home dialysis each night. The Ouimets' older kids -- Molly, 10, and Patrick, 7 -- continue to stay with Kristi's parents five to six nights a week.
And the Ouimets continue to sleep with one ear open, waiting for the call that tells them organs have become available, that they have received a godsend as a result of some other family's unthinkable tragedy.
"Their loss is going to be our blessing," Kristi Ouimet said. "The thought humbles me. I pray for them as I do for my own family every night."
Recently, a hormone imbalance in Matthew's blood soared, causing pain in his legs. At an age when most toddlers are beginning to run, Matthew rarely walks.
"It kind of goes in waves where I almost obsess about Matthew getting his transplant," his mom said. "Then there are other times when we're doing our routine and I've got other things on my mind. Honestly, those times are a little easier."
It's easier still when you can share your hopes, fears and frustrations with someone who doesn't have to imagine what you're feeling.
"It didn't take long at all for us to connect," Ouimet said of her friendship with Welch. "It's really cool to have a similar personality and sense of humor to rely on."
The women share several common denominators, heartache among them. Welch and her ex-husband, Paul, lost an infant son to the same disease that afflicts Alyssa. When Alyssa experienced renal failure at age 2, Welch donated one of her kidneys to her daughter.
Alyssa's donated kidney began to falter last year. Welch, a nurse, began driving her daughter to San Francisco -- a 180-mile round trip -- three times a week for dialysis, while working enough hours to maintain her benefits. When she lost her house, she and Alyssa moved in with her parents.
"A lot of people have said, 'I don't know how you do it,'" Welch said. "Well, what's your choice?"
Both Ouimet and Welch are passionate about raising awareness for organ donation -- the importance of donating, the number of lives one donor can affect, separating fact from myth.
"I have a family member who said, 'Well, they won't try to save me,'" Welch said. "People think (doctors) won't try to save your life if you're an organ donor, which is absolutely not true. I know that for a fact because I'm a nurse. That's why I think it's important, and I know Kristi says the same thing about talking to your family members about it, asking, 'Do you want to be a donor or not?'"
Ouimet believes that the more people know about donation, the better decisions they can make. As an example, she cited directed donation, which is how Alyssa received her organs. While many children and adults can wait years for available organs, directed donation allows the recipient to jump to the top of a transplant list. The family of Alyssa's donor knew of her situation because a family friend attended high school with Welch's oldest daughter, Amanda.
"Most people don't know about it," Ouimet said. "I knew about it because I saw it on 'Grey's Anatomy.'"
In fact, "it dates back to laws that were put in place in the 1960s," said Joel Newman, a spokesman for the United Network for Organ Sharing. Every state has a directed donation law, he added, which "gives the individual family of a deceased person the right to say, 'I would like to see if this person's organs can be donated to this person.' Then comes testing and consent. It would have to be compatible."
Now that Alyssa has been liberated from regular dialysis treatments, Ouimet and Welch have found ways to stay in touch. "We still Facebook, talk and text all the time," Ouimet said.
Welch is planning trips from Riverbank to Antioch to help the Ouimets any way she can.
"Now," she said, "it's sweet little Matthew's turn."
Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him at Twitter.com/garyscribe.