The Angela Rushford story: A life-saving classified ad

By Jim Hagerty
Staff Writer

It’s been more than 11 years since a small classified ad in The Rock River Times saved 4-year-old Angela Rushford from the wrath of a rare birth defect that shut down her kidneys.

“I think God was smiling on us all that day,” Editor and Publisher Frank Schier said. “It was a privilege and humbling to provide that help.”

Jan. 3, 2003, Rushford underwent a kidney transplant, a month after total stranger David Harper, formerly of Mount Morris, Ill., answered her parents’ desperate cry for a donor with type O positive blood.

As University of Wisconsin Hospital doctors removed both of Angela’s kidneys, Harper’s kidney was removed, and became one of the most successful in transplant history at the time.

The donation came a year-and-a-half after Angela was initially diagnosed with polycystic renal disease and spent six months on a cadaver donor list. Before the transplant, doctors determined Angela’s condition was not the result of the rare kidney disease, but a birth defect caused by the exposure toStachybotrys mold. Angela was likely exposed to the mold when she lived in her grandmother’s Chicago home as a baby.

Shortly after the surgeries, the national media picked up the story and thrust Angela’s parents, Patty and Tony Rushford, in front of NBC’s Today show cameras at Rockford City Hall. There, they and Harper announced the Angela Rushford Children’s Organ Donation Fund. That fund would eventually raise almost $20,000 to help transplant patients.

While thousands of transplants are performed every year, Angela may have been just another patient kept alive through the marvel of modern medicine, if not for how her story evolved.

Patty Rushford was beyond desperate when she placed the ad in The Rock River Times Sept. 4, 2002. Facing a lifetime of dialysis and early mortality, Angela was slipping, and slipping fast. A transplant was the only thing that would save her. Then, the phone started ringing.

The first caller was willing to donate a kidney — with one condition. The donor wanted to be paid, which is against the law. The second came with a wave of hope not felt since the Rushfords first learned they were on the verge of losing their little girl. That hope faded when the second donor was not a match. Then, came David Harper’s call.

Harper was on his way home when he picked up a copy of The Rock River Times at a Mount Morris Mobil station. As Harper and his wife scanned ads, they noticed a small classified that read: “4 YR. OLD GIRL in desperate need of kidney transplant. Seeking donor w/O Pos. blood. Will compensate for loss of income.”

Harper had never seen The Rock River Times before. He had also never met Angela Rushford, but felt compelled to answer the ad.

“It wasn’t a hard (decision) at all,” Harper said in 2003. “I read the ad that said a child was in trouble. And I reached out to help. Maybe this was predestined. Maybe it was God’s will that this came about. But, I am not the hero. I think Angela is the hero.”

In 2002, The Rock River Times classified section was known for miscellaneous items. Never had a customer bought space seeking a human organ.

“(Patty’s) call became unusual when she requested an ad for an organ donor,” former Classifieds Manager Marieke McClendon said.

Per paper policy, classifieds consisting of 15 words or fewer are free. Patty’s ad was approaching 20.

“It ended up being over the limit, but I let it slide,” McClendon said. “She said it was for her daughter.”

As Harper was out of the hospital without complications in a few days, Angela’s darkest days were yet to come. Six months after the transplant, Angela developed post-transplant lymphoproliferative disorder (PTLD), a common form of cancer caused by mononucleosis and immunosuppressive drugs. In March 2003, a local radio station even mistakenly reported Angela had died.

Die, she did not. Today, she is a healthy16-year-old high school student; the Rushfords now live a quiet life in Whitewater, Wis.

Harper, whom Tony and Patty called a hero, lives in Texas. Like the Rushfords, he has chosen to remain out of the spotlight. Their story, however, remains a deep footprint in the Rockford area — one that defines the proof that organ and blood donation saves lives.

“Only together can we fuel progress and save lives fulfilling the promise of making transplants available to all patients in need and giving the gift of hope to patients and their families,” Julie Tilbury, coordinator of the National Marrow Donor Program for the Rock River Valley Blood Center, said. “Today, we are helping more patients than ever before to receive a transplant.”

Each day, thousands of patients await blood transfusions and transplants, Tilbury said.

Since Angela’s transplant, The Rock River Times maintains an “Organ, Tissue and Blood Donation” section in its classifieds pages.

“I started this paper to help people, particularly in the arts,” Frank Schier added. “I never imagined that we would be finding a little girl a kidney in one of our classified ads. We really don’t know how lucky we all are for our good health. I wish Angela and her family the best. They can always call on us when they need help.”

From the Jan. 29-Feb. 4, 2014, issue

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