It wasn’t a voice or a vision. It was more of a realization. An impression, she says, that God sat this person in the dental chair before her for more than just a checkup.
Her regular patient, Corey Hymon, of Windsor, S.C., was describing his kidney failure and being hooked up to a machine for four hours a day, three days a week for dialysis treatment. He was added to kidney donation waiting lists in Georgia and South Carolina, but it could be five years or longer before his name would be called.
That’s when she felt it.
“I just got this very serious impression, like God was saying, ‘Give him your kidney,’ ” Ochiltree remembers. “It was just very strong, and I was like, ‘This must be God telling me something.’ ”
A year later, after Hymon’s search for a living donor ran dry, Ochiltree began testing at Georgia Regents University to see whether she would be a match for him.
The blood work came back in the spring of 2010 with good news: Dental hygienist and patient were a match and they began making plans. Then Ochiltree got a phone call that made her stomach drop.
“Don’t give your kidney away,” said her sister, Melodie Mercier, 50. “Mine’s failing.”
THE HYGIENIST AND patient met for the first time in 2008, when Hymon came for a routine cleaning. Both outgoing and witty, they clicked like old friends.
“I’m one of those hygienists that annoy people and talk the whole time, so we hit it off,” said Ochiltree, 45, of North Augusta.
Until that point, Hymon, 42, was in good health, except for knee issues from a lifetime of playing sports and three years of “kicking in doors” as a police officer for the town of New Ellenton.
During a pre-op examination for a knee replacement in 2008, however, doctors discovered Hymon’s failing kidney. He started dialysis a year later and discovered the crippling impact it can have on patients and their families.
“You’re tied to a machine four hours a day, three days a week,” Hymon said of the treatment, which does the job of a kidney by pumping a patient’s blood through a machine that filters toxins and returns it to the body. “It’s no way to live.”
When Ochiltree wanted to help and was found to be a match, Hymon said, he was in disbelief at the offer. He already had had several letdowns – a friend’s wife offered her kidney but was not compatible, and a cousin who offered his backed out before the surgery.
After Ochiltree’s sister got sick, though, Hymon knew he had to look elsewhere.
“I just told her, ‘Go help your sister; that’s your family,’ ” he said. “I’ll be fine.”
IT TOOK MORE than a year for Mercier’s kidney failure to progress to the point that she required dialysis and was eligible for a transplant.
Hymon continued his biannual dental visits and asked about Mercier’s progress every time, Ochiltree said.
In late 2011, Ochiltree traveled to Emory University for testing to see whether she was a match for her sister. On the day of their appointment, a severe tornado passed through Atlanta; later, the hospital lost some of her and Mercier’s blood samples.
“There were signs everywhere,” Ochiltree said.
Four months later, the lab results came back. The sisters were not compatible.
“I was really praying we wouldn’t match,” Mercier said. “That’s my sister. If anything happened to her because she was helping me, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. Plus, Corey was there and needed it. I said, ‘You’re meant to give it to Corey. That’s why we don’t match.’ ”
RENAL FAILURE IS commonly a consequence of diabetes and hypertension, but some patients can have a predisposition for it genetically, said Todd Merchen, a transplant and hepatobiliary surgeon at GRU. It affects 26 million Americans and kills 90,000 a year – more than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined – but often goes undetected until the critical stages.
A kidney transplant is an alternative to dialysis treatment that can consume hours of a patient’s week, hold a family’s schedule hostage and drain the health of the patient, Merchen said.
There are more than 100,000 people waiting for kidneys from deceased donors nationwide, however, which can mean a five-year wait for people in Georgia.
Merchen said living donors can be a life-changing resource because they get much-needed organs to patients quicker and have higher chances of success.
“It can’t really be measured how giant a gift it is to give a kidney,” he said.
As understandably frightening as it can be to donate, Merchen said, there are still misconceptions that discourage the act. Many people don’t understand that the surgery is a safe one, that donors can survive with one kidney and that having only one does not increase chances to develop kidney disease later in life.
“Most people can wrap their heads around giving to someone they love, but it’s a little bit harder for most people to think, ‘Would I give to someone I found out needed a kidney and I kind of knew?’ ” he said. “There are some people who just see everyone on the street as their brother … and that’s awe-inspiring.”
AFTER SHE COULD NOT help her sister, Ochiltree called GRU in spring 2013 to resume testing to donate for Hymon, but first was required to lose about 15 pounds to be eligible.
In the meantime, Ochiltree’s husband, Dean, was growing nervous. They had been together basically since they met in 1985, when she was a cashier at Winn-Dixie and he called the store after buying groceries to ask her out.
“At first I was hesitant,” Dean Ochiltree said. “I want to have my wife, and I want my kids to have their mom. You’re giving your kidney to a basic stranger. What if I need it or one of the kids need it down the road?”
So, in September, Ochiltree invited Hymon, his wife and their two kids over for chicken enchiladas. The families had never met, and under the circumstances, it started off awkwardly.
“It was like, ‘What do we talk about?’ ” said Hymon’s wife, Sabrina. “We wanted to know how they felt about the whole thing, but it was hard to bring up.”
The families got out the party game Telestrations and had some fun. They danced around, and Ochiltree jokingly told Hymon that if she gave him her kidney, he might contract “her white-girl genes for dancing” and never recover.
The families learned their youngest daughters, both 13, attended the same school. Sabrina said she pulled Ochiltree aside and said how thankful they were to her.
After the Hymons left, Dean Ochiltree turned to his wife.
“OK, I totally get it now,” he remembers saying.
OCHILTREE COMPLETED the required testing and was approved to be Hymon’s kidney donor in January. The news came just weeks after her sister received a kidney from a deceased donor and recovered from a successful transplant.
The surgery date was set for March 14.
The day before, Ochiltree said, she had trouble understanding all the fuss being made about her.
“To me, it’s not a big deal,” she said. “I’m just a girl living life, trying to be obedient to the Lord. He asked me to do this, and He’s going to take care of me. Everyone is going to die, you know? If March 14 is my day to go, I’d rather go out trying to help someone. I’m totally at peace about this journey.”
The morning of surgery, donor and recipient lay in hospital beds separated by a curtain as nurses and anesthesiologists prepped them for the procedure.
Dean Ochiltree squeezed his wife’s feet, her wedding ring stuck on the knuckle of his pinky finger.
Sabrina Hymon sat by her husband’s side, clutching a thermos that Ochiltree had ordered that said, “I got a kidney!” It matched hers that said, “I gave a kidney!”
As the nurses started wheeling Ochiltree away, two hours before Hymon would be brought in, they said goodbye.
“See you later, baby,” Hymon said.
“Catch you on the flip side,” Ochiltree called out.