LEARN MOREAnyone wishing to find out if they are a matching donor for a waiting recipient can learn more by going online at matchingdonors.com or calling 866-594-8349.
The gray, wintry clouds and traffic slowing to a crawl along the interstate set a somber tone for Susan Crownover's morning commute.
For much of the drive on this November day from her Ringgold, Ga., home toward Girls Preparatory School, where she works as a teacher and softball coach, the gloomy clouds had hung so low they completely obscured the surrounding mountains. But just as she crossed the state line from Georgia into Tennessee along I-75 North, Crownover noticed the sun burning through the dark cover to unveil a patch of clear, blue sky.
For several seconds, as she stared skyward, the clouds continued to diminish and the day began to brighten. The personal symbolism was too obvious to ignore, and the normally reserved Crownover was overcome by emotion.
"It just hit me all at once," Crownover explained. "I cried all the way to school. And I don't cry. Ever. People were sitting next to me on the interstate wondering what was wrong with me, I'm sure because I looked like I was having a breakdown."
For more than 20 years Crownover has privately dealt with a disease called IgA nephropathy, a disorder that can cause the kidneys to leak blood and sometimes protein into the urine. As the disease gradually undermined her health, leaving her with less energy, she began to be tested once a month to determine at what level her kidneys were still functioning. In April, tests revealed that her kidneys were functioning at only 8 percent of capacity and she was scheduled to begin dialysis treatment immediately.
Her name was also placed on the waiting list for a kidney transplant.
Crownover is one of the state's most prominent high school coaches, with eight softball state championships in a 23-year career and two as the Bruisers' basketball coach before retiring from that sport. She and husband David, who coaches baseball at Ringgold, have raised two kids and been mentors to countless others who played for them.
And all while keeping her battle relatively quiet.
"You can live on dialysis, but your quality of life isn't good and even your life expectancy isn't very long," Crownover explained. "When I learned that eventually you just wear out, that was the thing that kicked me in the gut."
The average wait time for a patient on a kidney transplant list is three to five years, which would mean continuing the dialysis process that was already taking a toll on Crownover's body. Knowing that the life expectancy for a woman in her mid-40s with her condition and awaiting a kidney transplant is about nine years, Crownover leaned on her faith to ease the fear.
"I believe in the power of prayer and that's what we relied on," she said.
Ever the dedicated coach, Crownover put off beginning dialysis treatment until after the state softball tournament in May. But each day of the Spring Fling event, exhaustion forced her to return to the hotel to rest between games.
Once she got home from the state tournament, she began nightly dialysis treatments, connecting a tube into her side for the uncomfortable eight-hour process of flushing out her kidneys while she tried to sleep.
As news began to spread about her condition, family members, friends and former players all began to get tested to see if they could possibly be a donor match.
Despite her paralyzing fear of needles, Kelley Boyd was among those who decided to undergo the testing process.
Boyd's only connection was that her daughter Madison had played outfield for Crownover before graduating two years ago and now dates Crownover's 21-year-old son, Matthew.
Boyd was told that her initial round of testing showed she was a donor match.
"She's always been such a great person, such a positive influence on her players and her family," Boyd said. "I knew that just from the few years that Madison played for her. So when I heard about what she was facing, I just thought, 'why not me?' What if I'm able to help?
"I'm afraid of needles. When I went to be tested my blood pressure was up from worrying about the needles. But after praying about it I felt this calm come over me and since I found out I'm a donor match, I haven't worried about needles or the surgery or anything because I feel like I have a new purpose. She deserves to be happy and healthy."
While Boyd continued to undergo tests to determine if she would in fact be a match, word began to come back that none of Crownover's family members who were tested turned out to be a match.
On the day Crownover received the news that would forever change her life, she was back on a ball field. Walking off the dusty Warner Park diamond, a backpack over one shoulder, a bucket of balls in one hand and a cooler full of ice in the other, she noticed Boyd approaching with a smile.
"The doctors had told me not to say anything to Susan yet, but I was so excited I just couldn't wait anymore," Boyd said. "I was busting at the seams with excitement and just said, 'I'm a match!'
"She looked at me like she couldn't believe it so I repeated it and she just dropped everything in her hands and we hugged."
Doctors at Atlanta's Emory Hospital informed Boyd and Crownover that the earliest available surgery date was the week of Thanksgiving, and asked if they would prefer to postpone it so that they could spend that time with their families.
It was Boyd who made the decision that they would take the first open date for the surgery.
"I just wanted Susan to feel better as soon as possible," Boyd said. "She told me it was my call but I said we could all be together for Thanksgiving and just postpone having family dinner until we both felt better."
On Tuesday morning of this week, after several rounds of tests and months of waiting, doctors at Emory removed one of Boyd's kidneys and less than an hour later, in an adjoining operating room, placed the healthy kidney into Crownover's weakened body.
Both families, including Boyd's daughter and Crownover's son Matthew came together to wait anxiously for the procedure to be completed. Both families will remain in Atlanta to celebrate a non-traditional but very meaningful Thanksgiving together and with Susan and Kelley.
According to David Crownover, doctors said on Wednesday they were amazed at how quickly both women are recovering and expect they could both return home by the weekend.
"This may be the best Thanksgiving ever," Susan Crownover said. "Even having a morphine pump instead of food. But Thanksgiving really isn't about the food anyway. It's about being thankful for the people in your life.
"This is possibly the most humbling thing I've ever experienced. I can't thank her enough. It's one thing for a family member to be willing to do this, but it's amazing that somebody who has only known me a few years would be willing to sacrifice like that for me.
"Grateful isn't even the word for how I felt. How I still feel."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.