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Getting a kidney changed — and saved — a woman who didn't feel worthy of a transplant

KELSEY SNELL, HOST:

A woman in Arizona was reluctant to ask for a kidney donation because she didn't feel worthy. Eventually, she did and was overwhelmed by the response. Thirteen people die in the U.S. each day waiting for a kidney. Reporter Laurel Morales brings us the story of one lucky recipient who's celebrating National Donate Life Month.

LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: Monica Brown was raised Catholic, and at a young age became preoccupied with ideas of good and bad.

MONICA BROWN: When the nuns told me that we are born with original sin, I took that very seriously. And so often, I never felt good or worthy enough.

MORALES: At night, she would pray for forgiveness for things like getting her shoes wet. She'd make the sign of the cross again and again. She also prayed for her mother's kidney disease to be cured.

BROWN: It was terrifying to have a mother who was sick and so young and vibrant, to have an awareness of mortality and danger.

MORALES: Her mom had autosomal dominant polycystic kidney disease. It causes fluid-filled cysts to grow in your kidneys. It gets worse with time, and it's inherited. Monica's mother had it. Her grandmother died from it. Monica was in graduate school when she got her own diagnosis.

BROWN: I thought I had it. I knew to my bones that I had it. So it felt like a confirmation rather than a revelation.

MORALES: Monica and her then-boyfriend didn't waste any time. They got married, moved to Flagstaff and had two daughters. Focused on parenting, writing books and teaching, years passed. Then, one night in her mid-40s, Monica's stomach started hurting badly.

BROWN: If 10 is passing out, I am a nine. (Laughter). It is agonizing.

MORALES: She wound up having the first of 12 surgeries and being put on the long waitlist for a kidney from a donor who died. While waiting two years, Monica became sicker and sicker. Her husband, Jeff Berglund, pleaded with her to ask friends for a living kidney donation. Still, those earlier worries about feeling good enough crept in.

BROWN: I felt ashamed, but I certainly did not feel worthy of asking.

JEFF BERGLUND: And I said, what is the worst-case scenario? The worst-case scenario is you've educated a lot of people, about hundreds of thousands of people who are on the waiting list where they're at, and that's a good thing.

MORALES: Eventually, she agreed. So on May 9, 2018, Jeff posted a letter on Facebook.

BERGLUND: Dear friends, family and readers of Monica's work, it will probably come as a surprise to you that my amazing wife, the writer Monica Brown, has been living with an incurable, inherited kidney disease.

MORALES: Within minutes, responses came pouring in. A total of 27 friends got tested to see if they were a match.

BROWN: The response was unbelievable. It was probably one of the most overwhelming, blessed moments of my life.

MORALES: Unfortunately, none of Monica's friends was a match. At this point, she was close to dying. But then she received a call from her doctor - a kidney, a match.

BROWN: I would have danced into the surgical room if they had let me.

MORALES: It's been three years since her transplant. Monica is now 52 and just walked her first 5K.

BROWN: When I was the most vulnerable and the most literally near death in terms of an organ I needed to live failing, I felt so worthy of love and like I could contain it all without qualification.

MORALES: Monica Brown received a kidney and finally felt worthy of the gift. For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales.

SNELL: This story comes to us from the podcast "2 Lives." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.