Friendship, faith and a kidney have come together to irrevocably connect two Catawba College alumnae and the husband of one.
In February, Jeremy Morris of West Palm Beach, Fla., husband of Kate Merrell Morris '04, donated a kidney to his wife's best friend, Ashley Quinones '04 of Sanford. For Jeremy and Kate, the decision to donate the kidney was one grounded in faith.
"We just really felt like it was something we could do ... that God called us to do it," Kate explained in a phone interview before the Feb. 21 transplant surgery took place in Chapel Hill. "We have a strong belief that God has put us on a certain path back in 2007 and this has been the largest project for us to speak God in our life. It's much bigger than just a kidney."
Kate first met Ashley while both were students at Catawba. Kate remembered, "The first time I met Ashley, I was working in the Student Center doing my work study. Ashley came to see Jan Gillean [Catawba's director of student activities] and Jan wasn't there. Ashley laid down on the couch in the office down there and went to sleep. That was right before her double lung transplant.
"Later in the fall of 2002, Ashley and I sat next to each other going over on the plane to England. We went over and studied for the semester. Ashley and I really struck up the friendship on the first plane ride. She was adventurous like me."
Ashley's Cystic Fibrosis necessitated her double lung transplant in 2001 while she was a student at Catawba. Her studies were interrupted for most of the year due to her illness and recovery from the transplant, but the campus rallied around her. In April of 2001, her fellow students in Dr. Karl Hales Discussion and Parliamentary Procedures class organized a fundraising dance for her, "65 Roses for Ashley Quinones." All proceeds went to the Children's Organ Transplant Association (COTA) in Ashley's name. The name "65 Roses" was chosen because many children with CF cannot say "Cystic Fibrosis" and the term comes out sounding like "65 roses."
While Kate and Ashley became dear friends while students at Catawba, Jeremy entered the picture after their graduation. Jeremy, a graduate of Palm Beach Atlantic University, and Kate attended the same church in West Palm Beach, Christ Fellowship. Ironically, Kate recalls that her relationship with Jeremy also really started when she sat beside him on the plane ride to Peru in 2007, where the three of them were going on a mission trip. The relationships formed on that mission trip in 2007 resulted in the marriage of Jeremy and Kate in 2009, where Ashley was a bridesmaid.
"In Peru, we talked about how we had this sibling type connection to each other," Ashley recalled about Jeremy in a phone interview shortly before this year's transplant operation. "Now, he and I are going to share an organ — something that I can't share with anyone else.
"It hasn't been easy. It's been a rollercoaster this past year and a half and they've [Kate and Jeremy have] stuck with me. They've had every opportunity to pull out of this process. It's something that the three of us over this process have really had to come to terms with — that God is going to take care of it — we have to accept life on God's terms not on ours. It has been daily new lessons in our life that this process has taught us. They've chosen to stick with me. If Jeremy's scared, he doesn't show it — he's been a rock. Through my eyes, I see a really brave, courageous Christian man, and I see how lucky my best friend is and I'm happy for her. He says, 'Don't worry.' He says that no matter what happens he'll never regret this decision.
"We very rarely talk about what this means in the big picture. There are certain things you can't express in words and this is one of them. At the end of the day, a thank you doesn't cut it, but Jeremy doesn't want any thanks from me. He's doing it because it's the right thing to do, not because of recognition or approval."
Ask Jeremy why he decided to donate his kidney to Ashley, and he will tell you because it was the right thing for him and Kate to do as a couple. The couple learned that Ashley needed a kidney when they visited her in the hospital on her 30th birthday in 2010.
Ashley remembered that visit and telling her friends about her dire situation. "Kate and Jeremy came to visit me and once they were face to face with me, I told them I needed a kidney transplant. It didn't take them 5 minutes to offer to donate. They both asked me what blood type and I told them A+ and so are both of them. They knew how sick I was — they saw me. I shared with them how scared I was to go home."
The hospital would only test one person at a time as a possible kidney donor match for Ashley and Jeremy stepped up. "I knew Kate was going to do it, but we discussed all the pros and cons and decided I was the best option. It is something I can do, not only for my wife but also for a dear friend.
"You can't make a decision based on the what ifs and fears. We just really felt like it was something we could do and that God called us to do it. We wanted to share our story and our faith during this journey. That's why I've written the blog [jeremy-kate.blogspot.com] about our decision and process," he said.
That decision came to fruition on February 21st at UNC Chapel Hill. Both Jeremy and Ashley's surgeries were better than text book, according to their transplant surgeons. Two days after the surgery, Jeremy walked down to Ashley's room for what proved to be an emotion and tear filled reunion. There is an undeniable bond; "I am quite smitten with your husband" Ashley admitted to Kate. To which Kate replied "For you, I am ok with that."
The trio even named the kidney — JASH — a combination of Jeremy and Ashley.
Since the transplant surgery, Ashley and Jeremy have reached all their recovery milestones nicely. Jeremy has returned to his job as a systems administrator specialist and Kate to hers as owner and operator of Katydid Designs, a business she established while a student at Catawba. Ashley, who has used her undergraduate and graduate degrees in theatre arts and master's classes in mental health counseling to work with marginalized communities, returned to work as an ESL Instructor and CAP worker this spring. Ashley and Jeremy were even able to plan for Ashley to make a surprise trip to Florida for Kate's birthday celebration Memorial Day weekend.
"I keep asking God, 'What are you teaching me in all of this? Aren't you tired of giving me lessons?' " Ashley explained. "I always assume that's all about me, but this whole thing going on with my kidneys could be about someone else. The world doesn't revolve around me, and I forget that sometimes. Realizing that has helped me get through it. It's helped me fight to get through it. I've had to fight to get through it, fight to get the insurance, but it's never crossed my mind to ever give up on any of this. I look at Jeremy and see how brave he is through it and that helps as well."
Although Medicaid funded the cost of Ashley and Jeremy's transplant surgeries, many medical expenses remain. Those who wish to assist with this effort may make donations to COTA.
Friends may contact Ashley at www.facebook.com/kidneycutie and Kate and Jeremy at www.jeremy-kate.com.