About 17 hours before she was scheduled to undergo a kidney transplant in an attempt to correct a polycystic renal failure, 5-year-old Angela Rushford of Rockford sat in her hospital bed watching Max Keeblers Big Move with her parents at her side.
Not far away in another University of Wisconsin at Madison Medical Center room, 38-year-old David Harper and his wife, Shelah, both of Mount Morris, prepared to give what they said was the most important Christmas present they had ever givenone of Davids kidneys.
This is what Christmas is all about, David Harper said. Its about what you can give, not what you can get.
David Harper gave his kidney to Angela Rushford about a year and a half after she was diagnosed with the kidney disease that doctors said is extremely rare in children. Polycystic kidney disease is a progressive hereditary disease in which cysts form in the kidneys, which eventually end in kidney failure. The disease cannot be treated, and the only options are to undergo regular dialysis or receive a transplant. Polycystic kidney disease patients may have blood in urine, high blood pressure, kidney stones, enlarged waistlines and experience pain in the back, abdomen or side.
The transplant was scheduled for 9 a.m. Jan. 3 and lasted about four hours.
God bless Dave … hes like my hero, said Tony Rushford, Angelas father, the day before the transplant.
The Rushfords said finding a match to Angelas Type O positive blood was a one-in-a-million chance. The way they found a match was more like a one-in-a-billion chance, a way that has landed them in the national media spotlight with an appearance on NBCs Today show and discussion on Chicagos WBBM-AM radio.
The news outlets garnered the story from an Associated Press posting. The story was originally written by David Holsted, staff writer for Sauk Valley Newspapers, Sterling, Ill. Holsted said a friend of Harpers, Vinnie Miranda, called in the story. Subsequently, the story was sent to the AP wire service.
Despite the sudden national attention, Angela had been on the cadaver donor list for six months to no avail. With kidney dialysis seemingly imminent, Angelas parents were becoming desperate. Her mother, Patty, who had been posting free classified ads in The Rock River Times in attempts to sell various items to earn money to pay for the growing costs of Angelas medical bills, decided to place an ad for a kidney.
I had mentioned it, and we had thought about it but never did it, said Patty Rushford, who placed the classified ad in September 2002. There was nothing to lose by doing that.
So, in the Personal section of the classified ads among pleas of LOOKING FOR WIFE, and WIFE WANTED, was the parents plea for help. 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.
A few days after the ad first ran, David and Shelah Harper made a quick stop at the Mobil station in Mount Morris. They picked up the various free publications available at the station, including The Rock River Times, which they had never seen before. That evening, David and Shelah sat down and began leafing through The Rock River Times.
It was the first time Id ever saw [the paper], David Harper said. We normally always pick up the little free papers that were lying around and I said, Well, heres a new one. So I grabbed it. We just started in the front and wound up in the back.
David began reading through the news stories and commentary, while Shelah scanned the classifieds. Shelah read the Rushfords ad and handed it to David. Hes the kind who likes to think about things for a while, Shelah Harper said. She approached David later that evening and asked him for his thoughts.
We saw the ad, and I thought to myself, well, maybe Ill call, David Harper said.
David called the Rushfords that evening. Tony Rushford answered the phone and began crying. He handed the phone to his wife.
She [Shelah] sounded very appreciative that we had even called, David Harper said. She and her husband I guess started crying from shock.
The Rushfords said David Harper was the third person who responded to the ad. The first wanted money, and the second wasnt a close enough match. The Rushfords ad received about 50 responses altogether over a nine-week run.
Free classified ads usually run for three weeks. Classified Sales Manager Marieke McClendon said, After three weeks I called to see if she wanted to run the ad again. I usually dont call free ads back; but since it was her daughter, I called her. Ultimately, McClendon decided to run the ad another six weeks.
Patty Rushford said about the response her ad received: I couldnt believe it. I was very surprised. I was like, amazed. Im still freaking out like its not real.
Hes the best guy … its too bad there arent more like him, Patty said about David Harper.
David Harper, who has been out of work since he injured himself on the job as a welder in 2000, said he wants to make clear that he received no compensation for his donation.
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, David Harper said.
David Harper, who has two children of his ownDavid, 15, and Kyle, 13said the decision of whether to donate his kidney was an easy one.
It wasnt a hard decision, David Harper said. 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 own kids? David Harper said. But you cant base your decision on what-if. If Angela ends up dying because I didnt do this for her, how am I supposed to live with that?
He added, Maybe this was predestined. Maybe it was Gods work that this came about. But Im not the hero. I think Angelas the hero. Shes 5 years old and shes been through hell and back. Im just one guy trying to help somebody and to maybe get the message out to somebody else to do the same.
Editor & Publisher Frank Schier also contributed to this story.