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‘I’ll give you a kidney’: Newport woman who watched co-worker’s struggle with disease becomes her organ donor

UPDATED: Thu., May 5, 2022

As co-workers for 16 years, Marianne Nichols and Jill Shacklett became friends. Since April 26, they now share a kinship through Esther, the name they’ve given to Nichols’ recently donated kidney for Shacklett.

Shacklett, 55, needed the organ transplant because of a hereditary condition, polycystic kidney disease, which causes large kidney cysts. Another complication can be a connective tissue disorder leading to an aneurysm, caught early for her but fatal for two of her relatives.

Both women work for Pend Oreille County – Nichols’ 16 years as elected auditor and Shacklett’s 19 years as financial manager. But Shacklett now reports to county commissioners under a resolution passed this spring so that Nichols, her former boss, could be her organ donor.

“I have to tease that in this world where you can’t keep good employees, it’s kind of funny – ‘That’s all you need is a kidney? OK, you’ve got it,’ ” Nichols, 51, joked a few days before the surgery as she and Shacklett sat in a garden near Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center.

“I moved finance under the county commissioners, so the county commissioners of Pend Oreille County now are her boss. We have a great group of people up there, and everyone was willing to do what we needed to do.”

Shacklett will do the same work, with commissioners handling her annual reviews, which removed an earlier potential roadblock to Nichols’ organ donation.

The procedure went smoothly, with both released from the hospital on Thursday a week ago. Typically, a donor stays longer as the body adjusts to only one kidney.

“Marianne got out a half an hour before me,” Shacklett said on Friday from her Spirit Lake home. “I actually feel pretty good. I’ve started on the immunosuppressant, and your body has to get used to that. My kidney function is good, and Esther took off right away and started making urine. My kidney function is now over 60%.”

Nichols said she did so well that the doctor asked her about going home to Newport early.

“Super happy with the way the kidney took for Jill,” she texted Monday.

She had watched Shacklett struggle over the years. In 2021, her kidney function fell to 16% to 17%, low enough to make her eligible to be on the donor list for an organ transplant. “At 15%, they start thinking about dialysis,” Shacklett said. “If I had to wait three to five years, I definitely would be on dialysis.”

Nichols also researched the topic, so she knew that the chances of a kidney transplant taking a better hold were higher if the recipient isn’t on dialysis and the organ comes from a living donor versus a deceased donor.

Their journey started several years ago over a conversation about food, when Shacklett began a plant-based diet that helped. She said Nichols asked, “So does that mean you need a kidney?” Shacklett responded, “Yes, someday.”

“Marianne said, ‘I’ll give you a kidney,’ ” Shacklett said. “She is a really kind and generous person. She’s always helping people, not just this; this is her life and how she is. I knew she meant it, and when the time came, there she was – determined.”

The two haven’t always been on the same page politically, Nichols said, but it never impeded their friendship.

“Jill and I have always had this special relationship where we could talk,” Nichols said. “What the world needs a whole lot more of is being able to communicate and just listen to each other.

“Part of my message with all of this is being kind. As the Bible says, if a man has two coats and his brother needs one, to give him your coat. It’s kind of the same with a kidney, that I have an extra one, and I’m blessed and healthy enough to be able to give it to Jill.”

To make good on her promise, Nichols first entered a living donor process to complete her own health checks before any tissue sampling on whether she could be a match.

“There’s a lot to the whole testing for the living donor,” Nichols said. “They want to make sure you’re as healthy as possible. COVID got in the way a couple of times.

“They don’t even match you up until after I had to get all my old health records, catch up on my mammogram, colonoscopy and other things. After I got all that in, I think it was finally August when they did our tissue matching and realized we were a good match, which is in itself a miracle.”

“Because there are many people who have so many people test who aren’t a match, the fact that she was, it was meant to be,” Shacklett said.

Michelle Thurston, a Providence Sacred Heart living donor coordinator, said the likelihood of a nonfamily member match is unusual.

“For matching purposes when it’s a biological blood relative, those matches are more common than what you’d see in this particular pair, where they were friends, and there was no biological relation,” Thurston said.

Shacklett had an aneurysm repaired in 2010, which she describes as another blessing. Her father, grandmother, an uncle and aunt all had aneurysms burst; two of them died.

“I was the first family member that got it before it got me,” Shacklett said. “It was fatal for my uncle and my grandmother.

“My father and aunt both survived their aneurysm rupture. My father did have a kidney transplant, but, unfortunately, he had a fatal heart attack a month after he got his. The last aunt, she got her transplant during COVID, and she just a couple of months ago got COVID and passed away.

“I’m here to teach my generation that we can do this because of, thankfully, people like Marianne.”

Shacklett oversees finances for the county’s budgeting. Nichols said her co-worker is always positive at work.

“She’s amazing; she comes to work every day and doesn’t complain,” Nichols said. “There’s a smile on her face, always.”

She said Shacklett brought a mat to work for short naps under her desk or a blanket for a lunchtime rest outdoors with an alarm set “because she was exhausted all the time, but again, she never complained. As far as the county goes, we’d be lost without her. She knows more than most of us all put together.”

With Sacred Heart’s organ surgery center nearby, both said they’re grateful the hospital care is close. Shacklett will return regularly for several months for follow-ups on Esther and her immunosuppressant medication.

Both said the name, Esther, couldn’t be more fitting.

“One of the sites that I followed, I saw that a lot of them named their kidney,” Nichols said. “I thought, that’s weird but OK, so I named the kidney Esther because I’ve been seeing a bunch of verses, that you’ve been created for times such as this. That’s what we felt, that Esther the kidney, it’s created for such a time as this.”

That seemed appropriate also with surgery so near the recent holiday, Shacklett said.

“The fact that it is happening in the Easter season and at the renewal time with spring and new life is kind of cool.”

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