DINUBA, Calif. (KSEE/KGPE) – Every day, thousands of people remain on organ donor waiting lists. For a match with a living donor, it can take time – but a recent high school graduate in Dinuba got lucky.
In school, Alissa Ortiz never had classes with Ms. Tonya Pennebaker while she was a student at Dinuba High School. After graduation, Ortiz became sick. Her kidneys were shutting down. Before long, she was on full dialysis and searching for a living kidney donor to keep her alive.
She was told Ms. Pennebaker was involved with the Be The Match organization for bone marrow donors. Although she needed a kidney and not bone marrow, she reached out to Pennebaker. Pennebaker set out to do all she could to find Alissa her match.
“I just kind of explained what had happened, what I was going through, and that I was looking for a donor,” Ortiz said.
She wasn’t sure if she could help. But she was hoping with her experience, Pennebaker could help point her in the right direction of what to do.
“I just did it to do it, but I didn’t think anything would end up coming from it,” she added.
Pennebaker went to work researching how to help. They held sign-up drives, and went to center field during a Dinuba football game to spread the word. They did anything to get the word out. Eventually, Pennebaker put her own name down.
“I said ‘you know what, if it was my niece, my sister, my daughter I would want everyone to try.’ So I was asking everyone to try, so if I’m asking you to try, I better try too,” Pennebaker said.
After months of tests, they finally got some good news.
“Then I found out in February that I was a match,” Pennebaker said.
They couldn’t believe it. They say it’s rare to find a non-family match this quickly. And it’s also rare for the person tasked with finding the match, to be the match themselves. Two weeks ago, the pair underwent the transplant. Now Ortiz is on her way to recovery.
“It’s weird to have someone save your life. So it doesn’t really set in until you’re lying on the operating table and getting your new kidney,” Ortiz said.
She still has months of recovery ahead. However, she says she’s so thankful for Pennebaker’s sacrifice, and how she changed her life to save hers.
“For me to get a kidney one year after I was diagnosed already a miracle in itself, so I knew God had everything under control.”
Ortiz said she hopes to be able to go back to school in about six months, where she wants to study to become a teacher.