Angela Rushford one year later

n 5-year-old kidney recipient overcomes cancer, 39-year-old donor named Brawny Hero

Angela Rushford has been diagnosed with a kidney disease, had a kidney transplant, been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, suffered from an ulcer, appeared on national TV, and had a fund established in her name. And she’s only 5.

Angela’s story gained much national media attention last January, including appearances on NBC’s Today show, after she received a kidney from a total stranger who replied to a free classified ad in The Rock River Times. Today, doctors believe Angela has overcome the cancer she suffered as a result of the transplant, and she appears to be doing well, according to her mother, Patty Rushford.

Angela is almost a small replica of her mother. She’s tiny and mouthy, yet energetic and sweet. She can be shy when she’s in the mood, and cranky when she’s not feeling well. She comes from a strong Greek heritage, as her dark brown hair and dark brown eyes suggest. She’s skinny, but has a hearty appetite; she once wanted barbecued ribs for breakfast.

Her mother is similarly strong-willed and can talk your ear off. She’s always positive and refused to speak negatively about Angela’s condition in front of Angela. Fittingly, Patty’s maiden name, Tsakalis, means “wolverine” or “jackel” in Greek. While Angela was in the hospital in July suffering from an ulcer and complications to her cancer, Patty said, “I think she’s got part of that [wolverine] in her because she’s been through so much and she’s so tough.”

After all she’s been through, Angela takes only three medications per day—one for anti-rejection, one for her cancer and one calcium pill.

“She looks beautiful,” Patty Rushford said. “She looks like she’s never had a surgery in her life. Thank God, because she’s been through so much. It’s still hard to believe this all happened.”

Angela was scheduled to begin kindergarten this fall, but classes were already full when her parents enrolled her, so she will have to wait for an opening. “She really wants to go to school,” Patty Rushford said. “She’s pouting now because she can’t go.”

Angela had been diagnosed with polycystic kidney failure—a rare hereditary disease in which cysts form in the kidneys—and had been on a waiting list for a kidney for more than a year. About 80,000 Americans are on a list for an organ transplant, and about 17 people die on average each day waiting for a transplant that never comes.

Desperate, Patty and Tony placed a free classified ad in The Rock River Times on Sept. 4, 2002, searching for a kidney donor. The ad read: “4 YR. OLD GIRL in desperate need of kidney transplant. Seeking donor w/O Pos. blood. Will compensate for loss of income.”

The ad ran for two months, and the Rushfords received about 50 responses. The third person to call was David Harper, who lives in nearby Mount Morris. Tony Rushford was so overcome with emotion that he handed the phone to his wife.

David Harper, then an out-of-work welder, had no idea what was in store for him when he responded to the ad. It was the first time he had ever read the newspaper, and he said it was fate that led him to the ad.

On Jan. 3, 2003, a couple months after Harper responded to the ad, Angela and David underwent surgery at the University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison. Angela had both of her kidneys removed to make room for David’s larger kidney. Tests would later reveal that the transplant was one of the most successful in transplant history, with a 0.01 creatinine (poisons in the blood) level.

Today, Angela is not only a transplant survivor, but also a cancer survivor. She was diagnosed with post-transplant lymphoproliferative disorder (PTLD), a rare form of cancer, in late June. Experts have said cancer is common in many transplant recipients.

Doctors said the cancer was the result of a combination of mononucleosis (mono), which was carried through the transplanted kidney, and experimental immunosuppressive medication. Angela has since been taken off the experimental medication, and doctors said they believe the cancer has been cleared up.

Doctors determined before the surgery that Angela did not have polycystic renal disease, and classified her illness as a birth defect. Patty Rushford said she believes the defect may be the result of a mold she said was heavily prevalent in her mother’s home in Chicago, where the Rushfords lived when Angela was a baby. Patty said Angela once stopped breathing when she was just 10 days old.

In March, Angela joined the ranks of Mark Twain and Paul McCartney as people who were presumed to be dead before they were actually dead. During a radiothon fund-raiser for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, local radio station Q-98.5 mistakenly reported Angela Rushford had died. The radio station retracted the statement later the same afternoon.

Three days after the transplant in January, the Rushfords appeared on the Today show announcing their plans to start a fund to help other children in need of a transplant. On Jan. 15, the Rushfords were joined by David Harper and other Rockford leaders at Rockford City Hall announcing the formation of the Angela Rushford Children’s Organ Donation Fund.

The fund, maintained by the Community Foundation of Northern Illinois (CFNIL), has now generated more than $5,000, which will be awarded to qualifying families with children in need of an organ transplant. Tony Rushford and David Harper serve as co-chairmen of the fund.

The Rushfords estimated the cost of Angela’s medical care has totaled more than $1 million. To make matters worse, Tony was restricted to working out of the home for about a year and a half to help care for his daughter. He recently had been working, but the demands of his daughter’s illness pulled him away from his job, and he is now unemployed looking for work.

Like the Rushfords, 39-year-old David Harper is also very energetic. In February, David and his wife Shelah organized a benefit for the Rushfords at Mount Morris Moose Lodge. About 2,100 people attended the event, which raised more than $12,000 for the Rushfords.

David Harper also helped organize another benefit featuring local band Model One at South Beloit High School, and assisted in two benefit concerts for the Angela Rushford Children’s Organ Donation Fund featuring Miss Freeport 2003 Michelle Maves.

When asked in January if it was a difficult decision for him to donate his kidney, Harper said: “It wasn’t a hard decision. I read the ad that said a child was in trouble, and I reached out to help.

“A lot of people ask me, ‘What if it were your kids?’” Harper said. “But you can’t base your decision on ‘what-if.’ If Angela ends up dying because I didn’t do this for her, how am I supposed to live with that?”

Since the transplant, David Harper and his family have grown closer to the Rushfords. He said Angela now calls him “Uncle David.”

David Harper, who with a mustache and short brown hair somewhat resembles the “Brawny guy” on Brawny paper towel packages, was recently named a grand prize winner in The Drive for Brawny HeroesTM Contest sponsored by Georgia-Pacific Corporation. He was nominated by Kim Henry, an Oregon resident who helped the Harpers with the Mount Morris benefit.

In her nomination letter, Henry wrote: “He’s not only my hero, and the whole state’s hero, but he’s especially Angela Rushford’s and her family’s hero. … As for a father—he’s great with his two sons, Kyle and Dave. They’ve grown into wonderful young men, who are also giving to those around them and the community. This is my Brawny Hero—David Harper!”

As a grand prize winner, David Harper won a four-day, three-night family vacation for four to Washington, D.C., which he said he plans to take in the spring. He was also awarded $1,000 spending money to use on his vacation.

Harper said Georgia-Pacific said he might get the chance to meet President George W. Bush while in Washington. Georgia-Pacific will also contribute $5,000 to the Angela Rushford Children’s Organ Donation Fund, while Harper said Henry was

considering donating part of her $2,500 nomination award to the fund. Other grand prize winners included a municipal judge from New Mexico and a fund-raiser from New Jersey.

David Harper has already been to a photo shoot in New Jersey for Georgia-Pacific’s promotion of the Brawny Heroes and said media packages will be sent to media outlets Oct. 5.

The Rock River Times, meanwhile, continues to offer free classified ads of up to 15 words to residential readers, and has created an “Organ, Tissue and Blood Donation” section in its classifieds section. Four ads have been placed under that section since it was created.

David Harper said in January, “The whole point…is that if I can convince one person that donating an organ is a good thing, then it was all worth it.”

Patty Rushford said: “Our life is great. It’s just one thing after the next. I just keep praying nothing else pops up. We’re much happier, and I’m so glad to see Angela happy. We’ve got a normal life. I’m just so happy he [David Harper] helped us. He’s the best. I’m so glad he did this not only for Angela, but for our family.”

For more information about organ and tissue donation, contact the Gift of Hope Organ & Tissue Donor Network at 961-8214, the donor hotline at 800/545-GIFT, or visit For more information about the Angela Rushford Children’s Organ Donation Fund, contact CFNIL at 962-2110 or visit For information about Brawny Heroes and how to nominate someone for next year’s competition, visit A buyer’s club has also been set up online at to assist the Rushfords with their continuing medical costs. For more information about free classifieds, contact The Rock River Times at 964-9767.

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