The words put a lump in your throat and moisten your eyes, but the touches and glances say so much more.
Shayla and Ivy Bush are sitting on their parents’ couch recounting a story that needs all the reassurances they can muster.
“So,” Shayla said, “after all the air got sucked out of the room and I had the initial meltdown, as an athlete you automatically go into, ‘What do I have to do? What’s the game plan?’ ”
That was the day last fall the former Ferris High School athlete and Rutgers volleyball star found out she would need dialysis or a kidney transplant.
“You go from being a healthy athlete to, ‘Oh my God, my life is hanging on the ropes now,’ ” she said, glancing at her sister. “To see everyone come together … .”
Ivy saved the moment with a reassuring touch.
After setting sprint records and playing on a state championship volleyball team at Ferris, Shayla went to Rutgers “on a wing and a prayer.”
Ivy, a two-time All-Greater Spokane League volleyball player at Lewis and Clark High School, visited her older sister and decided the East Coast was for her, too. So Ivy chose Morgan State University in Baltimore and Shayla moved down to Washington, D.C., to be near her.
Shayla Bush has very much found a home there, running two offices of a small nonprofit and planning a June wedding.
“I love it,” she said. “It’s nonstop, very busy.”
Three-time Most Valuable Player for the Scarlet Knights and an All-Greater Spokane League MVP, she draws on her athletic experiences every day, she said. “As an athlete in a team sport, you have teammates with different backgrounds, different lifestyles. Living in D.C. you have all of that. It is the melting pot.”
Balancing academics as she earned a degree in sociology, athletics and a social life also helped.
“Knowing how to work long hours, and being able to work as a unit,” she said. “Everything falls into place.”
It also helped when she got sick.
Dialysis or transplant?
It was August 2009 when Shayla, 28, went in for a physical.
She mentioned the dark circles under her eyes, which she blamed on allergies; a sore back, which she credited to a minor car accident; and swollen feet.
Blood tests detected abnormalities in her kidneys, and she was sent to a specialist.
After a battery of tests, she was summoned to the doctor’s office, accompanied by Ivy, her fiancé, Walter, and her mother, Fannie, who had flown from Spokane. The diagnosis: chronic kidney disease.
After the initial shock, Shayla said, “No tears. I’m a fighter. We can beat this.”
She was determined to maintain a normal life – or as normal as life can be when limiting yourself to 1.5 liters of fluid (about 50 ounces) and 1,200 milligrams of sodium a day.
She continued to support Ivy and in October went to Arizona to see baby sister Oceana, who was on her way to being on the All-Pac-10 freshman volleyball team at Washington State University.
“She was upset,” Shayla said of Ivy, who also wanted to be with her. “I’m the big sister, I take care of them, they don’t take care of me.”
Aching bones didn’t really slow her down; she continued to play recreational volleyball.
“Being an athlete, something was always sore, so it was easier for me,” she said.
But by January she was sleeping 12 to 14 hours a day and had a metallic taste in her mouth. On Jan. 11 she was asked, dialysis or transplant?
Asking was the hard part
There are five check points for finding compatible organs, with a minimum of three matches for a donor.
The girls’ mother volunteered, but younger is better, Shayla said.
She kept procrastinating.
“My doctor asked about my sisters, and of course I had a problem with that,” she said.
Any time Shayla has something she wants to share, she makes three phone calls: home, Walter and Ivy. But this time the third call was more difficult.
“When I called Mom and Dad and told them the doctor wants me to ask Ivy, they were like, ‘Ask her. She’s an adult. She can make a decision,’ ” Shayla said.
“When I called Walter, he said, ‘Shayla, get over yourself.’ ”
So she made the call.
“I went right into complete sister mode,” Ivy, 23, said. “Of course I didn’t even have to think twice. I remember going into that initial meeting with the doctor, I had a feeling that everything was going to be OK. I remember walking past the chapel at the hospital and went in there and prayed, ‘Just let me be the one that can donate to Shayla.’ I knew after that everything was going to be OK and I was going to be the donor for Shayla.”
Ivy, one-time Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year, was in the midst of her senior season, but “It didn’t become a negative,” she said. “Shayla kept coming to all our games. It helped me become closer to my teammates.”
After the season she chose to finish her degree in family and consumer science via independent study so she could move closer to Shayla. She had a lot of doctor appointments to determine if she could donate.
It was that sister thing again.
When Shayla, Ivy and Oceana, 19, were growing up, Ivy said their dad, Ivan, a longtime civil-rights voice in Spokane and the equal opportunity officer for Spokane Public Schools, gave them a motto to live by: “Be close, get an education and be good citizens.”
Ivy said the sisters have always been “close, close, close.” Echoed Shayla, “Thick as thieves.”
But Shayla continued to avoid making the final decision.
She skipped work the first Monday in February because she was stressed, and the next day was told if she didn’t set a date for the operation she would be prepped for dialysis on Wednesday.
“That morning Ivy called me,” Shayla said. “She told me she talked to the (coordinator and) everything looked great.”
Ivy told her sister, “I’m a five-for-five.”
A transplant Yahtzee, Shayla exclaimed.
But there was more news from Ivy: “Our surgery is Feb. 24.”
The one decision big sister couldn’t make had been made for her.
Shayla had never been seriously injured as an athlete, unlike her sister who missed numerous games, and was a wreck in the foreign territory of the hospital during the countdown to surgery.
“I’m silent,” she said. “Ivy was talking to everyone.”
Before the surgery, their beds were pushed together.
“This is when I completely lost it,” Shayla said, fighting back tears. “I couldn’t thank her enough for saving my life. I couldn’t say thank you enough, until she said, ‘Shayla, if you say thank you one more time, I’m keeping my kidney.’ ”
Again, glances and a touch, then some deep laughter. The sisters laugh easily and often.
Back on the volleyball court
Recovery was amazingly quick.
Shayla said, “By week two, we were close to our old selves.”
“I couldn’t tell anything at six months,” said Ivy, who is a legal assistant in a downtown Baltimore firm but hopes to get into marketing. “There’s absolutely nothing I can’t do. I’m probably healthier now than I was before the surgery. I continue to live a healthy lifestyle. Being a donor is nothing but positive. Seeing Shayla well … I can call her at 10 o’clock at night and she’s still up.”
Shayla called it a whole new world. From her previous 10 medications, she’s down to taking five and will only have to continue two for life.
“If you come to my house, I do have a bland diet because I’m used to it,” she said. “But I make sure I have spices on the table.”
A week after visiting Spokane in November for a family trek to Pullman to see Oceana play against Washington, Shayla returned to the rec-league volleyball court.
“I missed it so much,” she said. “I have another tournament on Saturday, so I am getting back in the swing of things, and surprisingly things have gone quite well.”
Last weekend Ivy and Shayla played a tournament together.
“The first time I played I was a little cautious,” Ivy said. “I was playing defense and dove for a ball, it was instinct. I said, ‘Oh, that doesn’t hurt.’ I feel great. I see the scars, that’s about it. They’re very small scars. I can still wear a swimsuit.”
Shayla definitely has a cause. The sisters wear green wristbands that say “Donate Life.”
“One thing I really want to highlight, Ivy and all living donors not only save one life, they save two lives,” she said.
That’s the recipient and the next person who moves up the organ-transplant waiting list.
And then there is that athletic connection again.
“Being an athlete truly helped me in that the disease was my opponent and I had my coach, which was my specialist, and my teammates, my family and friends, to root me on.”
She said she appreciated the love and support that came pouring in, “with special thanks to Mom and Dad and Oceana and the Washington Hospital Center.”
Shayla was silent for a rare moment before adding, with a final glance at her sister, “It was very important to go through it with someone. It made me a stronger person, made me appreciate life.”