When Allison Rees was a sophomore in high school, she learned she had a rare autoimmune disorder, granulomatosis with polyangiitis (GPA), which attacks the kidneys and lungs. While doctors hoped that the condition would go into remission with medication, they warned Rees she would need a new kidney someday.
“They had always said at some point my kidneys will completely shut down and we always knew that I was going to be on dialysis and I was going to be on the transplant list,” Rees, 22, a college student in Ashtabula, Ohio, told TODAY. “But they couldn’t tell me how long that would be.”
After a flare in 2018, it became clear Rees needed a kidney soon. But she never wanted friends to donate one. She always thought to herself, “I would get a kidney when I was meant to get a kidney.” So, when her friend Jake Bleil, 23, gave her a Christmas card explaining he was her living kidney donor, she was stunned.
“I can't even explain all the emotions I was feeling at that time. When I opened the card I just knew that nothing was ever going to be the same for me,” she said. “I was relieved.”
Acquaintances to friends
Bleil and Rees always knew each other from mutual friends, but it wasn’t until they both attended college in their hometown that they became close. As they spent breaks between classes together, Bleil began understanding how serious Rees’ condition was.
“I just started asking her questions because she wouldn’t tell me anything, always just kind of playing it off as if nothing was really going on,” Bleil, an employee benefit consultant, told TODAY.
He had no idea what Rees experienced since being diagnosed at 15. In 2016, Rees learned her kidneys were shutting down and she started dialysis Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Then in 2018, she experienced a flare of GPA, where blood flooded her lungs causing her to vomit blood. When she woke about three days later at the Cleveland Clinic she was confused.
“I had no idea where I was,” she said. “There’s just a whole gap of time I don’t really remember.”
They gave her an oral chemotherapeutic medication to put her GPA into remission, which worked. But it seemed like she’d need a kidney sooner than she realized. After some prodding, Bleil better understood Rees’ condition.
“I finally found out and got enough knowledge to realize that she needed a transplant,” he said.
With GPA, a transplant is often the patient’s best chance.
“In her case, the disease technically burns out all her kidneys ... you have only two options,” Dr. Alvin Wee, her transplant surgeon at Cleveland Clinic, told TODAY. “Either you do dialysis, which is not great for people at her age, which is technically very hard for her, or transplantation, which is really the best option.”
After talking to a mutual friend who worked with transplant patients at the Cleveland Clinic and learning more about living donation, Bleil decided to see if he was a match — without telling Rees.
“I was just like, ‘Oh, that's cool. Let's just go see,’” Bleil said. “It just was so easy to do the first kind of screening to see if I'd be a match. So, it just made sense to try it.”
Bleil didn’t think he and Rees would be a match. He knew some family members had tried, but they didn’t work out.
“At that point, I realized the kidney is going have to come from someone not in her family,” he said. “(Donating a kidney) does nothing to your quality of life. There's nothing (negative occurring) to your life expectancy.”
He kept going through the transplant match process and started realizing that he might, in fact, be Rees’ match.
“It sounds like if she's going to get a kidney any time soon, the best chance would be me,” he said.
But he had to decide how to tell Rees. He kept his experience to himself and hoped to tell her for Christmas of 2019. Meanwhile, Rees learned that there was a possible organ donor for her.
“I was like, ‘I do have a living donor in the process of being tested and I don’t know who it is,’ and (Bleil) totally played it off. He was like, ‘Oh my gosh that’s so exciting.’”
They met at a local coffee shop for their gift exchange and Bleil saw the perfect place to hide his phone so he could record telling her that he was her living donor.
"I wanted to make sure it was scheduled, so she couldn't say ‘no,’” he remembered.
Rees couldn’t believe it.
“I knew that everything was going to change for me that I was going to be able to hopefully live a normal life,” she said. “There’s really no words that I can even explain how I feel and what he has done for me. There’s nothing that I could ever really do to repay him.”
Transplant to a ‘normal’ life
On Feb. 13, 2020 Rees received one of Bleil’s kidneys, only weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were so fortunate that we were able to have the surgery when we did. Jake was so persistent about getting everything done, he didn’t want to wait,” Rees said. “I still have the autoimmune disease, so that obviously puts me at a higher risk. It was beneficial being able to stay home a lot longer.”
Today they’re both thriving. Bleil noticed no difference in his life and Rees looks forward to one day making plans that don’t revolve around her dialysis schedule.
“Travel, in general, is really something that I feel like I haven't been able to do,” she said.
Rees feels grateful that helping his friend helped him become more vulnerable.
“It’s definitely awesome,” he said. “I'm thankful that I chose love. And it's made me as a person to be able to love a lot more and a lot easier.”