When Mattituck-born Andrew Heard moved to Southold as a third-grader and met classmates Jodi Arnold and Allison Schlachter, he never could have imagined that decades later both women would be instrumental in saving his life.
Arnold spearheaded an effort that would result in Schlachter, in a selfless act of generosity, donating a kidney to Heard and effectively saving his life.
And in a remarkable twist of fate, Heard would play a part in saving Arnold’s life as well.
It all started with Heard, 38, who was born with a kidney defect that required several surgeries and– at the age of 18 – a transplant, which he received from his mother.
After graduation in 1998, Heard moved to Hawaii and spent the next 15 years enjoying a normal life, working at various jobs in the restaurant industry and even starting his own business.
About two years ago, Heard began to feel tired and noticed he was losing weight and muscle mass. His doctor examined him and immediately sent him to a kidney specialist who found that his body was rejecting the transplanted kidney.
Heard was able to manage without dialysis by making drastic changes in his diet and by taking heavy doses of steroids and anti-rejection medications. But despite his best efforts, he was still struggling with renal failure.
“Throughout 2016 I had eight emergency room visits,” said Heard. “Half of those were overnight stays because my body was riddled with toxicity and I was on heavy doses of immunosuppressants.”
It was clear that Heard would need another transplant and that’s when Jodi Arnold stepped in.
Arnold and Heard, who had dated briefly in high school, kept in touch over the years and Arnold was keenly aware of the crisis Heard was experiencing. That’s when she offered to donate her own kidney.
Arnold proceeded with the evaluation but was denied because she had kidney issues of her own.
“My kidney was enlarged due to an obstructed ureter,” said Arnold. The problem caused a back flow which would have ultimately led to kidney damage, she said.
Arnold went in for a 5 1/2 hour corrective surgery and that was when doctors discovered she had a hole in her heart.
“Like with my kidney, I had no symptoms of this at all,” said Arnold. “My cardiologist said that holes in the heart often first present themselves in the form of a stroke in the fourth decade of life. I’m 36, so again, we were able to catch this in time and I had a procedure to patch the hole closed in December – all because I wanted to unload a kidney to Andrew!”
That, says Arnold, is when her friend Allison Schlachter stepped up to save the day.
Although Schlachter, 36, was in the same grade at Southold with Arnold and Heard, she was good friends with Arnold but only knew Heard casually.
When Schlachter learned that Arnold was not a candidate for donation she offered to donate one of her own kidneys. Just like that.
“For me it didn’t really take a lot of thought,” said Schlachter. “He needed a kidney, I had one that I could give and I felt that if I were in his situation I would hope that somebody would step up the same way.”
You can’t hope for people like that without being a person like that, she said.
So Schlachter proceeded with the evaluation, which included blood work, CT scans and renal scans. Doctors determined that she was an ideal donor candidate and the procedure was given the green light.
To expedite the process, Heard moved from Hawaii to New York and became a patient at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, which has the largest living donor kidney program on the East Coast. Living donor transplants last longer and begin their function more quickly than cadaveric organs, so it was an ideal solution for Heard.
On March 9, Schlachter and Heard found themselves side-by-side at New York Presbyterian being prepped for surgery; they hadn’t seen each other since their 10-year class reunion nine years ago.
“She looked exactly the same; she hadn’t changed a bit,” said Heard. “And she never expressed any fear or hesitation. The first thing I told her was that it wasn’t too late to back out. She just laughed and said, ‘Nah, I’m good.’”
The surgery was performed successfully and two days later Schlachter was back home in Southold. Heard would stay in the hospital several days longer as his procedure was more invasive.
“I’m feeling pretty good,” said Schlachter. “I’m a little tired and I sleep late and take a lot of naps, but that’s what the doctors told me to expect.”
Schlachter will be able to return to her job in Central Registration at Eastern Long Island Hospital in about a month.
Heard is out of the hospital and staying with Arnold during his recovery, which requires close monitoring of the transplanted kidney. So far everything is looking good.
“Allison stepping forward absolutely saved my life,” said Heard. “People hear about dialysis, but that’s not living, that’s surviving. There’s nothing healthy about dialysis; the longer you’re on dialysis you’re taking years off your life.”
Heard is quick to add that Arnold worked tirelessly to find a donor, taking to social media and sharing his story with SoutholdLOCAL.
“Jodi was the orchestrator for all of this; Jodi set out with a plan and she executed her plan in detail to the fullest. Everything she set out to do, she did, which is truly amazing.”
Arnold has nothing but admiration for her good friend Schlachter.
“I’m proud to call her a friend,” she says. “Her selflessness is unbelievable. Living organ donation is a beautiful thing that I can only hope gains even more attention in the future, thanks to selfless people like Allison.”
Heard is profoundly thankful for Schlachter’s generosity.
“How do you thank someone for saving your life? Words can’t articulate it. Words can’t do it justice. She just made it very clear that if she was in the same situation she hoped that someone would do the same for her. The fact is that she was in a position to help and that’s why she did it.”
Heard plans to honor Schlachter with a tattoo, as he did for his mother when she donated a kidney.
“I haven’t decided yet, name or picture, but I’m going to be paying homage to Allison some way, that’s for sure,” said Heard.
Schlachter feels that the donation was something anyone in her position would have done, saying that if she could donate again, she would.
“I wasn’t concerned about the surgery,” she said. She recalls driving to work in a snowstorm after the donation was given the go-ahead and worrying that something would happen to her before she had a chance to give Heard her kidney.
The trio of friends will most likely have a get-together once Heard is feeling up to it, said Schlachter. And they will certainly have a lot to talk about.