CAMBRIDGE — “My kidneys are rock stars!” Julia Kanno called out, just as Christine Tierney was pulling away from the red-brick elementary school where she runs a popular after-school program. “Do you want one?”
Tierney heard, but it didn’t register. There was no preamble, just a loud and unconventional greeting — “Halt!” — that was unmistakably Kanno, a free-spirited artist and writer who lives next door to the school. And then that offer, so matter of fact, as if it was a stick of gum and not a vital organ.
A private person, Tierney, 48, had confided to Kanno and two other Cambridgeport School parents with medical experience that she had a serious kidney disorder and would eventually need a transplant. But that was many months ago, and they hadn’t discussed it since.
Plus, Kanno — a 43-year-old single mother who grew up on three continents and has worked as a nursing assistant and housing advocate for the disabled while supporting her family and her art — had a habit of saying and doing provocative things, like wearing a viking helmet with horns to the hospital for her own hysterectomy. She made Tierney laugh whenever she called to say, “Release the Kraken!,” meaning it was time for her younger son, Odin, to come home.
So it was hard for Tierney to know if this offer was real — a potentially life-saving answer to a question she hadn’t asked — even as Kanno repeated herself and added that she was O positive, a universal donor.
After all, there was no way Kanno knew that Tierney’s husband, Luis Blanco, had just been rejected as a donor because of blood type, news that devastated the couple; that Tierney had no options in her immediate circle and was staring down a six-year waiting list for a deceased-donor’s organ; or that she was beginning to contemplate asking the vice principal for help with a public campaign — no small step for Tierney, who avoids social media.
At the same time, Tierney did not know that Kanno had already put months into this, researching donation, discussing it with her therapist and physician, asking for preliminary tests to check her kidney function and blood type. Her mind started churning as soon as she heard about Tierney’s polycystic kidney disease, an inherited, life-threatening condition in which the kidneys swell with ever-larger cysts.
Though Kanno and Tierney had been friendly for seven years, their friendship centered around Cambridgeport’s K-5 after-school program, and with Kanno’s son now in middle school the two women might go months without bumping into each other. Still, Kanno knew, immediately, innately, that she would offer Tierney a kidney.
Tierney had provided Odin with a structured, nurturing after-school environment. She had recognized his fourth-grade frustrations and struggles as symptoms of learning challenges, advocating for the individualized education program that got him back on track.
Plus, Tierney was fun to be around, an initially reserved woman who springs to life around close friends and children. For 15 years she has run a program cherished for its arts offerings and colorful surprises — snacks served inside fresh tube socks on wacky-shoe day; green “slime” pudding and a screening of ’80s favorite “You Can’t Do That on Television” on “Icky-Sticky Friday” — alongside tutoring and homework help.
Tierney has a knack for connecting with “the oddballs,” kids who remind her of herself when she was young, often forming close connections with children and parents. Older students love to return to visit Tierney, whose office — chockablock with student art, wildly painted furniture, and curiosities like a taxidermied fish with googly eyes — is part of the draw. She is also a Pushcart Prize-nominated poet.
“I love all my friends, but she’s just the embodiment of the word ‘good,’ ” Kanno said. “She’s helped me, and changed my life, and helped my kid’s life. . . . Not only would it be horrible if something happened to her, but then a whole bunch of kids would be robbed of a beautiful person that could be in their lives.”
Still, even as Kanno started getting evaluated for donation at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Tierney felt like she was dreaming. She had been anxious just thinking of asking anyone besides her husband.
“I just thought to myself, no one’s going to do this for me,” Tierney said.
It’s not just Tierney. Asking another person to endure surgery and give up their own healthy organ is, to many patients, too profound a question to even pose. “It’s very difficult, and one needs to have advice for that,” said Dr. Stefan G. Tullius, chief of transplant surgery at the Brigham, which performs as many as 100 kidney transplants each year.
Tierney likely won’t have to worry about that now. Over the last few weeks, Kanno has undergone a series of blood and urine tests as well as a “psychosocial evaluation” to ensure that she is an optimal match for Tierney, that she is healthy enough to donate, and that she has sufficient support for her own recovery, including the 12-week post-op period in which donors must refrain from lifting any weight.
“The transplant team asked me, ‘If you’re not a match for Christine, would you do it for somebody else?,’ and I said, quote-unquote, ‘Oh, hell to the no,’ ” Kanno said, making Tierney laugh on the couch beside her in her apartment earlier this month. Kanno does not want recognition — she agreed to be interviewed to raise awareness for Tierney in case she turns out not to be a match — and has been channeling her energy toward getting donation approval.
Tullius said Kanno “will most likely clear” as a donor, but for now the women are awaiting those results, which could come in the next few weeks. Though Tierney had felt anxious about her prognosis, she has caught herself lately dancing to the radio, experiencing “snippets of just, like, unbridled joy” over Kanno’s offer.
“It’s just given me hope that if this doesn’t work out, then something else will,” Tierney said. “Anyone can tell you that — my husband tells me that all the time — but for you to actually believe it is another thing.”