Barbara Lester is celebrating World Kidney Day today in the best possible ways — by feeling well and sending gratitude to Donna Bailey for donating her kidney in February. “It’s a miracle. I don’t know how to begin to thank Donna for saving my life.”
Donna, a director of operations for Olive Garden, said she was simply doing what she was meant to do. “This is fate, and I had to do it. I’ve been blessed with good health. In the restaurant business, we are all about service and being generous, and if we haven’t improved someone’s day, we’re not doing our jobs.”
The surgery at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC, on Feb. 13 went well. Both women are recovering at their homes in North Carolina. “Barbara’s new kidney is working like a champ,” said Barbara’s wife, Pam Stanley. Donna is also recovering nicely and walking every day.
Barbara learned in 2003 that she had inherited polycystic kidney disease from her father, who died of it. Barbara “kept it at bay” for years, but the disease worsened and she was put on a transplant list in May 2017. Several people including Pam were tested but they weren’t matches.
Then Donna came along. She saw a Facebook post of an acquaintance, Christina Larson, a retired LongHorn Steakhouse director of operations, about a friend who needed a kidney transplant. Christina included her friend’s blood type, which was the same as Donna’s. Donna responded to the post, and Christina put her in touch with Barbara.
Donna and Barbara wrote each other through Facebook, and Donna decided to be tested. “Honestly, I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m going to be a match for this complete stranger.’ But I ended up being a perfect match.”
The donor agency told Donna she didn’t have to go through with it. “They said I could walk away at any point, but I believe there was a reason I was put in Barbara’s path,” she said.
“Barbara lives a full life. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t donating to someone who would just sit on the couch. She travels and likes dogs as I do, so I said I would go 100 percent with this.”
Donna also learned that Barbara and Pam are regular guests at the Olive Garden restaurant in High Point. The pair celebrated there after Donna made her decision. “We are still amazed by Donna’s generosity and kind heart,” Pam said.
The only thing Donna was worried about, she said, was being away from Olive Garden, where she has worked for 15 years, for six to eight weeks. “I think I’ll be back sooner than that,” she said. “I’m grateful to Senior Vice President Richard Hernandez and Olive Garden for being so supportive. I wouldn’t be able to do this if I didn’t work for such a great company.”
Donna said she and Barbara shared a laugh when they parted at the hospital. “Barbara said, ‘You will always have a place in my heart’ and I said, ‘You’ll always have my kidney so I guess we’re stuck with each other.’
“This experience has been amazing and I have no regrets. I can’t wait to hear about all the adventures Barbara and Pam take. We’ll be lifelong friends.”
Barbara feels great and said she’s looking forward to that becoming her new normal and getting back to her work as a landscaper. “I can’t wait to go camping without worrying about becoming sick and to be able to enjoy an Italian Margarita at Olive Garden.”