DETROIT - One thing is certain -- it will be a Thanksgiving to remember for Shirley Cirilli of Fraser.
Three years ago, Cirilli was diagnosed with Wegener's granulomatosis, a disorder that damaged her kidneys.
"The kidneys would not come back, so I've been on dialysis since 2010," said Cirilli.
Cirilli was put on the transplant list to wait for a kidney from a deceased donor, but the odds were long. According to Gift of Life Michigan, as of Nov. 1, there were 2,575 patients in Michigan on the waiting list for a kidney.
Facing that reality, several of Cirilli's family members went through testing to see if they could give her a kidney instead.
Cirilli's sister Marcy Miller was a match, but further testing revealed she wasn't a good candidate to be a living donor. Cirilli's nephew's wife Lisa Johns wasn't a match, but she offered to donate a kidney to someone else as part of a paired donation to help Cirilli get a kidney. Meanwhile, Cirilli's niece Christie Gallagher decided to secretly go through the testing process.
"Christine didn't want her aunt to know anything until she was absolutely sure that she was going to be the donor because she didn't want her poor aunt to have hopes go up and be dashed again," said Dr. Darla Granger, a transplant surgeon at St. John Hospital.
Turns out, Gallagher was almost a perfect match.
"I couldn't wait for that phone call when she said you're okay, we accepted you," said Gallagher.
She came up with a memorable way to share the happy news with her aunt.
"She gave me this little gift box and inside was two kidney beans," said Cirilli. "I was stunned."
When it came time to schedule the transplant ...
"I said, 'We have to get the surgery done as soon as possible,'" said Gallagher. "I told her, 'How about the day before Thanksgiving? Would that work for you?'"
This morning, surgeons at St. John Hospital in Detroit removed a healthy kidney from Gallagher and transplanted it into Cirilli.
Doctors say there are several advantages to receiving a kidney from a living donor.
"We can do it when everyone is healthiest," said Granger. "Because it goes right from one person right into the next, it doesn't have to go through that shock, it doesn't have to sit around on a bunch of ice for a long time. With a living donor kidney it works immediately. As soon as you take the clamps off, it's so cool, it pinks up, and it starts making urine right away."
Cirilli and Gallagher hope sharing their story will encourage others to consider being a living donor.
"Don't be afraid to do it. If you love somebody, do it," said Gallagher.
"God gave us two kidneys, one to share," said Cirilli.
Once she's recovered, Cirilli hopes to travel.
"I'm looking forward to road trips with my sister and going over and spending time with my niece and other family members," said Cirilli.
They're hoping the transplant will allow them to celebrate many more Thanksgivings together, for years to come. As for the next big holiday, Cirilli said Gallagher won't need to get her a Christmas gift.
"I can't ask for anything more than that," said Cirilli.
"I wrapped your kidneys up for you," laughed Gallagher.
To learn more about being a living donor, click here.
To join the Michigan Organ Donor Registry, click here.
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