Lifesaving bond between sisters

By: 
Stephanie Taylor Ferriell, Print Editor

“Hey, Sis – got an extra kidney I can borrow?”

Sisters have a tendency to share everything … clothes, make-up, cars, secrets – but organs? While it obviously didn’t happen with a casual question, Dawn Zink Humphrey found herself in desperate need of a kidney. And when she did, her baby sister, Jessica Zink, gladly gave her one.

Dawn and Jessica have always been close, but their relationship started out much differently than most sisters.

“Jess was born in 1984, at the start of my senior year,” explained Dawn. Her impending arrival had been a shock for their mother, Donna Zink. Thirty-six when she learned she was pregnant, she felt she was too old. But being a family of faith, the Zinks believed, “This is God’s plan,” said Dawn.

Jessica’s arrival was a joyful occasion and the baby was a welcome addition to the household. “She was it – she was everything!” said Dawn, who was thrilled to have a baby sister to spoil.

As it turned out, tiny Jessica would soon prove to be a lifeline.

“She turned a year old and one month later, in October 1985, our dad [Norman Zink] was killed in a drunk driving crash. He was hit and killed,” said Dawn. “I always thought that was the reason Jess was brought to us. If it hadn’t been for her, I don’t know if mom would’ve made it.”

Dawn soon graduated, married and had her first son just a few years later. The years passed, Dawn had another son, Jessica grew up. “For so long, she was like my own child instead of my sister,” said Dawn. “But after she got to a certain age that changed.” The women forged a new bond as adults.

The Zink family is united in a way they’d rather not be – by a genetic illness, polycystic kidney disease. The family has detailed records dating back generations, to the 1800s, detailing all those who have had it. There’s a 50-50 chance a child of a parent who has polycystic kidney disease will inherit it. 

The girls’ father and uncle both had it, but their aunt (Marcella Backherms) did not. Dawn inherited PKD; Jessica did not.

The disease tends to show up around age 30; Dawn found out when she was 35. “There’s really nothing to do for it,” she said. “It causes high blood pressure, so you treat that.” Dawn said she dreaded going to the doctor before she was diagnosed, but once she found out she did have the disease a weight was lifted. “I knew what I had to deal with. The unknown was gone.”

She managed her symptoms for over a decade, but as she knew would happen, her health declined. About a year and a half ago, her nephrologist told Dawn she had to think about dialysis or a transplant and sooner, not later. She was put on the transplant list and, as sisters do, Jessica stepped up and began testing. “Something one day inside me said this is what I have to do,” she said. “It was my purpose.”

Testing was a quite long and involved process that took a year to complete. “It was tons of tests for months and months,” said Jessica, recalling having 21 vials of blood drawn at just one visit.

Jessica finally completed all the testing, which also included intense psychological sessions to make sure she wasn’t being pressured in any way to be a donor. “I had to sign a paper to say I wasn’t accepting money, housing or anything. It was a legal document. They told me you wouldn’t believe how many people would pay for an organ.”

The night before the May 3rd surgery the sisters were admitted to University of Kentucky’s Chandler Hospital. A large number of their immediate and extended family were there. “It was very emotional,” said Jessica. Perhaps most of all for their mother, who had to watch both of her children go back for major surgery.

See the full story in The Salem Leader, on newsstands now!

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