As she does most mornings on her way to work, Annamarie Ausness walked into a Washington state coffeehouse one day last October. But this time, it was the server who was offering Ausness a tip — the promise of a kidney.
For three years, Starbucks barista Sandie Andersen had been serving up Ausness’ order and learning little bits about her, mostly relating to their shared passion for their kids and grandkids.
And when she learned Ausness needed a kidney, Andersen gave her customer one of hers. The surgical transfer took place on March 11, and on Wednesday, Ausness and Andersen talked about it for the first time with TODAY’s Meredith Vieira.
The story goes back to last October, Anderson said, when Ausness came into a Tacoma store for her usual order but didn’t look quite right.
“I’m really pretty familiar with all my customers,” she said. “I could tell she wasn’t feeling really well. I just looked at her and I asked her, ‘How you doing today?’ She said, ‘Not too well.’ I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ She didn’t really want to say.”
What Andersen didn’t know was that Ausness had been suffering for 20 years from polycystic kidney disease, which gradually robs the organs of their ability to do their job. She had just learned that her kidneys had finally deteriorated to the point that she would soon have to go on dialysis if she could not get a donor organ.
“I prodded a little bit and she told me that she was going to go on dialysis, and then she explained about the kidney disease, that her family was not a match,” Andersen said.
Andersen is the kind of person who jumps in and helps wherever she can. She had traveled to the Gulf Coast to help rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. She thought about the 17-month-old granddaughter, Ava, Ausness always talked about and how much Ausness wanted to be able to watch the little girl grow up.
“That just tugged at my heart, because we had talked about children and grandchildren,” Andersen told Vieira. “Family was really important to us, and I just thought, ‘You know, if there’s something I can do, I want to do it.’ ”
So she underwent the necessary tests to see if she might be a match. After all, she had two kidneys and if she could spare one to save a customer who had become a friend, why not? Andersen gave Ausness the news over the morning coffee exchange.
“When she reached over the counter and said, ‘I’m a blood match,’ it was like nobody else existed in that room, and that line was almost out the door,” Ausness recalled. “We both started just to bawl.”
A generous gift
Without Andersen’s extraordinary act of giving, Ausness would have faced up to five years of painful dialysis while waiting for a donor kidney. She had, in fact, already had the shunts for dialysis implanted in her body.
Andersen said her motive may have been impulsive, but her decision wasn’t. “I researched this really well,” she said. “I made myself as educated as possible, talked with my family deeply. I really felt I made a good decision, and I just felt in my heart this was the right thing to do for Annamarie.”
Andersen’s husband, Jeffrey, gave his approval, but it came with a proviso. “I told her if somebody wasn’t feeling well where she worked at, please don’t give any more body parts away,” he quipped.
After the surgery, Andersen was out of the hospital in three days. Two days later, on March 16, Ausness returned home. Both women are in their 50s, and as they sat side-by-side in Ausness’ Tacoma home, they admitted that the surgery left them both in considerable pain that’s finally starting to let up as they go through a six-week healing process.
But the pain wasn’t enough to keep them from smiling broadly as they told their story.
“Even in the midst of the heavy pain, never did I feel that it wasn’t worth it,” Andersen said. She just keeps reminding herself that the discomfort is temporary and the reward is worth it.
“I’m going to be uncomfortable for six weeks out of my life, and then I’m going to go on and live,” she said. “I have a wonderful life already, and I know I’m going to continue to live that life. Now I know that Annamarie is going to be able to have that same quality of life that I have. That’s amazing to me.”
Ausness choked up as her friend said that. The two talk constantly now and their husbands have become friends, as well.
“When we look at each other,” she told Vieira, “there’s an understanding because there are no words; there aren’t enough words to say, ‘Thank you.’ ”