On Aug. 20, Billy Brown, son of District 91 teacher Julie Brown, received a new kidney. The donor? Dina Farrington, another teacher in the district.
“As soon as she found out about it, and without any hesitation, she just went for it,” said Julie Brown, whose 19-year-old son Billy is improving every day from his surgery.
Farrington learned about Billy’s condition on Facebook after Brown posted the story.
“We were at our wit’s end because he was going to be having to start dialysis, and my husband Ed said, ‘Why don’t you put Billy’s story on Facebook?'” said Brown.
A number of people had already come forward willing to donate a kidney, including herself, her husband, and her other children, but none were candidates. Other relatives volunteered, but for various reasons, including age, health conditions, and wrong blood type, weren’t viable matches.
“So I posted Billy’s story on Facebook,” said Brown. D91 Speech pathologist Julia Espinosa saw and shared it.
When Farrington saw the post, she asked, “Wait. Is this our Julie Brown?” Although she’d known Brown for years, she hadn’t been aware of what was going on with Billy.
Immediately, she reached out to the transplant coordinator. What started next was a slew of medical tests to see if Farrington was a match and met all the health criteria necessary to donate.
“I didn’t even know my blood type,” said Farrington. “I texted my mom to find out. As soon as I discovered I had the right blood type, that’s when my journey began with testing to make sure Billy and I were compatible.”
Her first round of testing included 22 vials of blood drawn, and Farrington said throughout the course of determining if she was a match, she was checked from head to toe, including a body scan to make sure she actually had two kidneys.
Her creatine levels were low, which can sometimes mean kidneys aren’t functioning correctly. But because she’s a serious runner, the results can be skewed. So she underwent a longer test to ensure everything was fine. It was.
Her blood pressure tested high once because she was running from building to building for tests. So she wore a blood pressure cuff for 24 hours, which she said was nerve-wracking because it made her nervous.
“Every time the cuff tightens, your blood pressure skyrockets,” she said. “I had to learn how to just calm down for 24 hours, which was really difficult for me.” But she was determined to pass all the tests.
“I know I couldn’t have controlled the results of any of the tests,” Farrington said. “But I wanted to in my heart.”
She had already received the support of her husband and children, who are 20, 19 and 14 years old, and the only slight pause she had was going under for the surgery.
“I can’t even say it was a hesitation,” she said. And when she was finally cleared for the donation, she never looked back.
As it turned out, the surgery date was the day of her grandfather’s birthday. He died at the age of 92 and would have been 99 this year. But the coinciding date “confirmed that this was the right decision and gave me peace knowing everything would be fine,” Farrington said.
The first time Billy and Farrington met was a few days before the actual surgery, at Oberweis with their families.
“I was 10 times more nervous to meet Dina than I was about the actual transplant,” said Billy. “I don’t even know why.”
And on Aug. 20, the day of the surgery, they met up outside the hospital and walked in together with Billy’s dad; nobody else, including Farrington’s family, was allowed because of COVID restrictions.
“I’m still young enough so they were very lenient with me and my parents,” said Billy.
The surgery was successful, and Billy, not even two weeks post-surgery during the interview, said he could already tell the difference.
“Before the transplant, I would sleep 16 hours a day,” said Billy, who compared the feeling pre-surgery to living in a fog. “There was never a moment when I was awake where, if I closed my eyes for five minutes, I wouldn’t fall asleep.”
He said he was so used to sleeping all day that being awake for an entire day is a unique experience. “The first time it happened, I was so blown away,” said Billy. “I don’t know what to do with all the time.”
Since he was five, Billy has suffered from membranoproliferative glomerulonephritis (MPGN), a disease affecting the glomeruli, or filters, of the kidneys, visiting doctors and hospitals regularly. In December 2018, his kidneys started failing. Again, a year later, they got worse.
“That was when the doctors started saying, OK, you’re going to need a kidney transplant,” Billy said.
He stayed in the hospital post-surgery for four days. The first day of recovery was, he said, terrible. And at first he couldn’t walk without a walker. But gradually he began to feel better and better.
Farrington only stayed one night in the hospital.
“I was determined to go home, and I’m stubborn,” she said. She passed all the tests she needed to. She visited Billy. And then she was released. She said their doctor, Dr. Enrico Benedetti at University of Illinois, did a great job.
A marathon runner, Farrington said she will wait the four to six weeks before she can begin training again. But she’s been walking instead, trying to cover the mileage she’d normally be running. A neighbor, she said, stopped to ask if she was OK because she was walking slowly instead of running.
But incredibly, four days after surgery she was in class, teaching remotely, for the first day of school on Aug. 24.
Billy, who attended Fenwick High School and is an Eagle Scout, is on a gap year from Benedictine University because of his health. He enjoys fantasy football and can’t wait to start playing basketball. He said he really wants to play intramural sports in college. Ultimate Frisbee, he said, sounds fun.
“Before the transplant, I couldn’t play sports without getting too tired. If I was playing basketball, I’d be dead tired by the time I ran to the basket. I had no stamina. Zero. So now I’ll be able to play sports,” Billy said.
Brown, who’s taught in D91 for a total of 18 years, with a break to raise her kids, attended local schools herself, including Betsy Ross, Field Stevenson, and Proviso East. Her parents, she said, lived in Forest Park for 55 years. She works as a preschool assistant at Garfield. Her family now lives in Berwyn.
Farrington’s been with the district for 17 years total, also with a break to raise her three children. She teaches Kindergarten at Garfield School.
Farrington has completed nine marathons, one by herself along the lakefront. In 2020, she was planning to run her 10th and final marathon, but when it was canceled due to COVID it was another confirmation, she said, that donating her kidney was the right choice. Her marathon registration is deferred until October 2021, and that will be, she said, her last marathon. Maybe.