CORNELIUS, N.C. – Brett Epps, 28, and Alix Cirigliano, 27, had been dating only one month when Epps was rushed to the emergency room in 2014, unknowingly in the midst of severe kidney failure.
The day that should have been spent celebrating Cirigliano’s birthday was interrupted with devastating news: Epps needed a new kidney.
Now – almost two years since they started dating – he has given her a ring, and she has given him a kidney.
‘Nightmarish roller coaster ride’
The Cornelius residents first met three years ago at a Verizon store where they both worked. They started dating a year later. “I had to see if I could put up with her first,” Epps said with a grin.
Their home is often laced with laughter but also holds traces of pain. It’s where Cirigliano passed up on meals the nights Epps couldn’t eat. It’s where their cat Romeo and guinea pig Joe Pesci waited when the couple routinely went to the hospital.
It’s where their friends and family gathered to support them as they prepared for a surgery date, only for it to be rescheduled.
It started with swollen ankles and lightheadedness in October 2014. But for the former wrestling champion in great physical health, Epps said he would have never thought he had an underlying disease.
“I went in thinking I had a long day walking on my feet, but they said it’s a lot more serious, and that’s when everything changed,” he said. The doctors told him his blood pressure was over 200, and that he was in stage five – the last stage – of chronic kidney disease.
“My left kidney was completely shot, it was all scar tissue trying to fight the disease without me knowing,” Epps said.
He was diagnosed with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, a rare disease in which the kidney’s filters become broken or scarred and are unable to do their job of separating protein from urine. Epps said his doctors told him he could have had the disease for years without ever showing symptoms.
“When I was about 12, they found protein in my urine, which they said at the time was a common thing for athletic boys doing sports,” Epps said. “We didn’t check into it, but if we had, they probably would have found it then.”
Epps said once doctors realized how weak his kidneys were, they put him on dialysis. He’s been putting a catheter through his stomach for nine hours every night since, a machine doing the job his kidneys no longer can.
“I call it a nightmarish rollercoaster ride,” said Kurt Epps, Brett’s father. Kurt, a retired English teacher from New Jersey, said his son never had so much as the flu growing up – he was always healthy and active.
The diagnosis came when Epps was uninsured, which is what prompted his father to start a GoFundMe profile and Facebook page, Wrestling My Toughest Opponent Ever.
“I did this to spread the word about the disease and the circumstances involved,” Kurt Epps said. “It’s been a very humbling process to see how much love and concern is out there.”
It was also used as a resource to find potential donors, a taxing process that can often take years. He decided to be optimistic. “I just went day-by-day saying the right person will come around, the match will happen.”
What Epps didn’t know when he was diagnosed was that the right person had been around for over a year.
‘What’s my blood type?’
“At the beginning it was so much to take in and absorb, it didn’t seem real,” Cirigliano said. “You hear these stories of other people, but when it happens to you, it takes you by surprise.”
According to the National Kidney Foundation, about 100,800 people are waiting for a new kidney, the average wait time being 3.6 years. Though finding a donor in itself is a hurdle, the person must then go through a series of blood, tissue and crossmatching tests before being seriously considered.
Epps said he had eight or nine potential donors – friends, family and strangers – that never made it past the final tests. A former student of his father’s was the first to make it all the way through testing, ready to give his kidney to Epps on July 8, 2015.
In the middle of the operation, his heart stopped. The would-be donor survived and is fine now, but the transplant had to be aborted.
It was the closest Epps had been to getting a new kidney. After 10 months of searching, he was back to square one – or so he thought.
“It was toward the beginning that I submitted my paperwork,” Cirigliano said. “But at that point there were already so many people ahead of me in the general testing, it took a while to get to me.”
She had wanted to help from the start, but Epps didn’t think it was a good idea. “I’m very protective of the people I care about,” Epps said.
“We had different feelings, I was excited and happy I could help him,” Cirigliano said. “I didn’t even tell him at first.” Cirigliano also waited to tell her mother, Tammy Monday, until she was well into the process.
Monday tells it like this: “She called me one day and said, ‘Oh, by the way, what’s my blood type?” Monday said, laughing as she recalled the conversation.
Monday said her daughter was committed to help Epps in any way she could. Larry Cirigliano, her father, said that helping others has always been a part of her character, remembering that even as a 5-year-old, she won Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s ‘Do The Right Thing’ award.
She made it through all the tests and was cleared to be her boyfriend’s donor in April of this year. “For me, it was a no-brainer.” Cirigliano said. “When I found out it was a match, it just made sense.”
With Epps on board and some more rescheduling, the couple began preparing for a June 1 surgery.
‘You’re still gonna ask her, right?’
The day before their surgery at Carolinas Medical Center, Epps was feeling worse than usual. He had a severe spike in blood pressure and had to be rushed to the emergency room.
His family was in from New Jersey, her family from Staten Island. “We got to the room to prep for IV and everything, and my blood pressure was still not good,” Epps said. The couple was told they had to wait four more weeks, and a new date was set for June 29.
Cirigliano didn’t know it, but Epps had been planning to pop the question just before they were rolled into their operating rooms on June 1. Though their operation was postponed, he was determined to see this plan through.
“My mom was like, ‘The surgery isn’t going to happen, but you’re still gonna ask her, right?’ ” Epps said.
Cirigliano was discouraged by the delay, but when she came to his room later, her disappointment turned to delight when Epps surprised her with the ring. “I had no idea,” she said. “I was so thrown off.”
In the days leading up to the new date, Epps said he felt even more confident. He and Cirigliano got to the hospital around 5 a.m. June 29.
Friends and family say the nearly two-year-long battle has finally come to a close: the operation was successful, and Epps and Cirigliano are now recovering in hospital rooms across from one another.
“They are resting, still in pain, but all they keep asking about is each other, like ‘How’s Alix? How’s Brett?” Monday said.
The process, she said, has been both draining and exhilarating. “I hope this speaks to those that have been on the fence about being a donor. Maybe this will help others come forward to give life as well.”
Now, after almost two years of searching to find a donor, Epps has a life ahead of him with – and because of – his perfect match.
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