Friends for Life

Organ donation proves Kesler, Leib have ultimate pact

By Marcy Patterson and Kyla Hurt

She was an otherwise healthy 35-year-old mom to Charlie with her loving husband, Chris, who finds out that she might lose her life, but ultimately ends up being saved by the selfless act of her childhood best friend and Routt Catholic High School classmate.

 Meet Rachel (Kindred) Kesler and the lifesaving BFF Mandy Leib. Here is Rachel Kesler’s update on her life that was rescued.

 Kesler throws it out there, “I am a crier. Weddings, graduations, the ‘Saved by the Bell’ episode where A.C. Slater’s lizard dies … All. Of. It. So, you can get a pretty good visual of how I reacted when my doctor told me I was going to need a kidney transplant. Three years of testing and the best explanation we have is an auto-immune disease that caused scar tissue in my kidneys. We believe it had been slowly ticking away for years with little symptoms, when a sweet baby boy named Charlie swooped in to save my life.”

 Before, at age 22, Kesler had been living in Chicago and was diagnosed with high blood pressure. Kesler then recalls at age 32 at her first routine pregnancy appointment with her obstetrician Dr. Jeffrey Olejnik, now in Jacksonville, he wanted to take another look at some red flag blood work. Apparently, a very serious kidney issue had been around for years, disguising itself as this high blood pressure. “I’ll never be able to thank Dr. O and the team of specialists he put together in one visit. I still have my post-it note from that first phone call, locked in a small closet at work frantically taking notes. I truly owe him everything,” confirms Kesler.

 Kesler was diagnosed with ANCA Vasculitis, which is a type of autoimmune disease that causes swelling or inflammation of blood vessels. 

 “Hand-picked by Dr. O, my kidney specialist Dr. [Richa] Pandey came into my life during my most vulnerable days at 16 weeks pregnant, and I’ve seen her every month ever since. I honestly can’t imagine going through this with anyone else. She has laughed and cried right along with me at every appointment. She is such a gift … and now a dear friend,” exclaims Kesler.

 Fast forward three years and Kesler traveled again and again to Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis and the Mayo Clinic. She endured multiple six-hour infusions with little success … and then … she worsened. In January of 2021, she dropped to stage 5 kidney failure and they began the process of searching, and hopefully finding, a kidney match. 

 In addition to needing a new kidney, she had only 33% lung function.

 Kesler vividly recalls, “[It was] a day I had dreaded since my diagnosis. How do you ever ask someone to risk their life for yours? And how do you ever return the favor? It’s something that keeps me up at night. But word got out fast and my friends and family made this the easiest part of the whole process. I laughed through tears that day more than any day in between. Those poor ladies at the Barnes call center got to meet Jacksonville in a whole new way.   The amount of people who have been offering me their kidney will forever make me ugly cry, so let’s not bring this up in public unless you’re ready for that.”

 She had sent out a text to friends about needing a donor and over 50 friends and family members showed up to be tested. There were so many that Barnes-Jewish Hospital was overwhelmed and felt assured that a match would be found in the amount of people who showed up, so the hospital stopped the testing. Mandy Leib and another friend, Kevin Chumbley, were the finalists that went through a month long of extensive testing until finally Leib was approved.

 Her lifelong friend was once again going to be there for her. Kesler jokes about her winner of a friend, Mandy Leib. “Of all the people that tested, there was one gal that raced through the testing process because quite honestly she’s never lost at anything in her life. Mandy Leib has been the MVP of every team I have ever belonged to (while I’m always the much less athletic one clapping for her in the corner.) Mando has been carrying me through life since high school, so this really isn’t anything new to her. She does it all.”

 That last bit could be said again … and then again. The ultimate MVP, Leib also receives a lifetime sportsmanship award in her generous treatment of another. 

 The potential 2020 transplant was placed on hold due to a spike in Kesler’s autoimmune disease, but was finally rescheduled for Tuesday, September 14, 2021.

 On September 14, the two girls checked into their hospital rooms at 5:30 in the morning, not realizing that they would be immediately separated, unable to see each other again. The two envisioned as we do when we’re telling the story, that they’d be in a room together, holding hands, hanging out, waiting together for the transplant. That’s not how it happened. Leib was immediately given her own transplant coordination team and given multiple opportunities to back out from the transplant, so much so that you might interject and say, “Hey, I’m gonna do this, okay.” They even provided her  with an opportunity to cancel, letting her know that they would go back and tell her friend that it was a medical reason that caused it and her friend would never know that she had actually backed out (Quite interesting, right?).

 No family was allowed other than the two husbands. However, the moms, Carolyn Kindred (Rachel) and Susan Gaudio (Mandy) decided that they couldn’t be that far away and spent the day together in Saint Louis just outside of the hotel room waiting for the good news. Leib woke up in the ICU at 1:15 in the afternoon. Rachel woke up at 3:30 in the afternoon. Mandy Leib was released the next day, September 15, to go home. Rachel Kesler stayed for another seven days after that time, leaving as the grateful new owner of that amazing Mando’s left kidney.

 When talking to Leib, we questioned if she ever reconsidered her choice, or if she had any trouble making the decision. Leib responded, “I can only imagine how hard it was for Rachel to continuously be fighting for her life. I would do whatever was needed to be done, including risking my own life to save Rachel’s. Nobody tried to talk me out of it … not my family, my friends or my husband after they all did their research. They all understood that we had to do this for her.”

Kesler quips, “I’ve always said we could have made our own ‘Friends’ sitcom out of our humble little hometown crew, and this episode would for sure make for some prime time TV –the episode title, ‘The One Where They Save My Life.’”

 Mandy Leib’s selfless act deserves hero status. It was an entirely altruistic act and from love. Her kidney was a match. The two are both 35. The two both have 3-year-old little boys. They’re a pair meant to be. Kesler adds, “I’ll never be able to put into words how grateful I am for her and Billy Leib … and Charlie’s best buddy, Will. We owe them my life. Literally. Please send her all the fan mail you can get your hands on because she deserves a hero’s parade once COVID is behind us. The big man upstairs deserves a lot of credit for putting such wonderful people in my life. Thank you to each and every person who has been riding this roller coaster with me since day one.”

 Both Kesler and Leib agreed that Jacksonville is a town that shows up for you. As soon as people understood what the girls were going through and the decisions that had to be made, everybody came. They brought food. They brought treats. They brought toys, all that nonsense. They came together as a community. Leib would like to take a special moment to thank her employer, Cargill, where she’s a sales manager. The bosses all looked out for her; they approved her eight weeks of time off as family leave. Everybody was wonderful. 

 Leib and Kesler teased their husbands that they’d need to step it up and do some real work when they got home. Kesler mentioned, too, that she figured she would have always lived in Chicago or a large city like that … but once she got home and then her life changed like this, she realized you can never find this kind of love in a community anywhere but in a town like this. She says, “I’m so glad to be a part of it.” 

Kesler summed up her life being saved, “God is Great. Science is awesome. Friendship is the very best.” Those, people, are the facts. What a wonderful and amazing world.

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