Silt woman discovers that the gift of life is not all that difficult to give

Heidi RicePost Independent StaffGlenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Kelley Cox Post Independent

SILT – When Joy Zeller gave the gift of life to her friend, she also learned herself just how precious life is.That’s what the 26-year-old Silt woman says three years after giving one of her kidneys to her friend Elliott Brown, 28.Zeller has known Brown since they were very young and living in Pennsylvania. On this afternoon, they are sitting together on the couch in Zeller’s home at Center Town Homes in Silt, which was built by her father, Silt Mayor Dave Moore.

“We used to call him ‘Little Elliott,'” Zeller said, looking at her friend with a big smile. “We’ve been interacting with our families since way back.”The two met while they were in middle school through Brown’s older brother and their church group.”But we didn’t know each other as well until about four years ago,” Brown added.Brown was born with a condition called Alport Syndrome, a genetic disease that is characterized by endstage kidney disease, hearing loss and sometimes vision problems.”It’s pretty rare, but it affects both kidneys,” Brown said. “The disease is real rare for males.”Brown received a kidney transplant from his father in 1995. But 10 years later, it was determined that he needed another one.”I found out from his brother that (Elliott) was feeling bad and not doing good,” Zeller said.

In the past, donors usually had to be family members for the best match, but with the anti-rejection drugs available today, it doesn’t need to be a perfect match, Brown said.So Zeller and her husband talked about it and she did some research to learn of any possible repercussions or if it would affect her ability to have a baby.”We both got tested and found out that I was a pretty decent match,” Zeller said. “Then the reality hit and we said, ‘All right, let’s do it.’ I thought it was cool that I was a match.”Zeller, who moved back to Colorado in 2003 after finishing college, flew out to the east coast where she and Brown were admitted into the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. Doctors operated first on Zeller and then Brown.”I was totally ready, but before that, I had never done anything more than scrape my knee,” she said earnestly. “I’d never felt bad in my life.”Normally, it takes a while for the transplanted kidney to start functioning in its new home, but Brown’s body took to it right away.”Beforehand, I was shocked at how bad he looked – he was swollen and yellow,” Zeller said. “I was amazed afterwards when I saw the difference and when I saw how much it means to give a gift like that.”

And it’s a gift Brown is extremely grateful for.”The fact that she would do something like this,” he said with a tremble in his voice and tears welling up. “She’s such a wonderful person.”A vivacious and positive woman with an infectious smile, Zeller says she wants people to know that donating an organ is not that big a deal and hopes she can encourage others to do so as well.”I was up walking around the next day,” she shrugged. “I think a lot of people are still weirded out by the idea. But I want other people to know to that it’s not hard. They do some tests and some bloodwork, ultrasounds and make sure you’re healthy. But I was surprised at how easy it was. It’s really not as bad as it sounds.”To make her point, she lifts up her shirt to reveal three very small scars to the side of her stomach that are hardly noticeable.It’s now been nearly three years since the transplant, and Brown is doing well. On his left wrist he wears a green bracelet, which he received from the hospital a month after the surgery. The bracelet says “Donate Life,” and he has never taken it off.Following the transplant, Brown was also able to again imbibe in one of his favorite beverages – chocolate milk.

“He lives on chocolate milk and Doritos,” Zeller said with a laugh.Brown smiled but did not deny it.He has recently moved to Silt and just began a job at Sunlight Mountain Resort as a lift operator for the 2007-08 ski season.Zeller and her husband, John, recently had a healthy baby girl who is now three and a half months.”Donating my kidney to Elliott is probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever done,” she said, bouncing the baby on her lap before hesitating. “Well … giving birth was pretty cool, too.”Zeller’s gift to Brown was life-saving to him, but she got something out of it as well.”You only have one body in your life, and you have to take care of it,” she said. “This has been a benefit to me to realize how precious life is. And I hope my story will spur someone else on to do the same thing.”

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