Column: Kidney is a gift of life and lifelong friendship

jlynem@thetribunenews.comJune 22, 2010 

Sometimes in life, an opportunity opens up when all doors have closed. We meet a person who touches us in an extraordinary way. We receive an unimaginable, even magical gift or a chance to begin anew.

In many ways, this is what happened to Oddette Howard, who last fall was quickly running out of options.

The 56-year-old, a stunningly beautiful woman with salt-and-pepper hair, a sharp sense of humor and a smile that could light up Times Square, found out that a cousin in North Carolina would not be able to donate her kidney, an organ that Oddette desperately needed.

A former California Youth Authority administrator who manufactured her own brand of barbecue sauce in the North County, Oddette was diagnosed about eight years ago with polycystic kidney disease. It’s a life-threatening illness characterized by growing cysts, causing high blood pressure, kidney enlargement and, eventually, failure.

By 2008, function in her only working kidney had severely diminished, so much so that the choice was either dialysis or a kidney transplant.

Then, something Oddette (affectionately called “Miss Oddette”) can only describe as divine happened. After talking about her situation at Unity Church in San Luis Obispo, another member, Machelle Migliaccio, approached her. Without hesitation, Machelle, who works at Jamie Clark’s State Farm Agency in Pismo Beach, offered to begin the donation process through California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.

The two had known each other for nearly a decade, but Oddette wasn’t expecting Machelle to be a donor candidate. Machelle, who had always been passionate about being a donor, had no doubt that she would be a match.

“You know, you get to a point in your life when you ask yourself, ‘What difference am I going to make in the world?’ I was given this opportunity to make a difference for one person,” Machelle said.

So, Machelle, 56, began the lengthy and intense process of interviews and tests to figure out if she would be a suitable donor for Oddette. Not only did the two share the same blood type — A-positive — but when the lab mixed their blood together, Oddette produced almost no antibodies, which decreased her risk of rejection.

Oddette said she felt like she was “walking on a cloud” when she heard the news that Machelle had been cleared and a date had been set for the transplant. For Machelle, it was like “stepping on a ride at Disneyland.”

With the love and support of their relatives, employers and church family, which helped raise money to help with costs associated with the transplant, the women underwent surgery in May.

When they emerged, both women, who now refer to each other as sister, knew they would never be the same.

“I have such an appreciation and peace that I can’t explain,” Machelle told me.

Oddette said there are no words to express her gratitude to Machelle, whose gift has inspired her to live her life to the fullest and provide greater service to others.

“It’s like someone handed me a whole new life all over again,” Oddette said.

She is living with her mother in Fairfield while she continues recuperating. Oddette said the first six months will be the crucial time for doctors to see how well her body accepts the donation. She will need to take immunosuppressant medications for the rest of her life.

Machelle, meanwhile, is recovering well, too. The first few days were rough, but the surgery was minimally invasive (laproscopic surgery through her C-section incision), and so it wasn’t terrible. She’s already off pain medications, with the exception of an occasional Tylenol. She’s not yet back at work.

When I think about what Oddette and Machelle experienced, I wonder how many of us have the courage to step up and save a life. How many of us have the faith and strength to keep moving, maintaining a sense of joy and calm in the face of unspeakable pain and uncertainty?

As we face trials and tribulations, as a nation or within our personal lives, these women are role models for us all and reminders that our greatest blessings are often where and when we least expect them.

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