When Sarah Chester started suffering from shortness of breath and anemia at age 26, she thought she was just out of shape. But, when she went to the doctor, what she learned was shocking: her kidney function was only 10 percent.
Chester hadn't realized that the symptoms she was experiencing were signs of kidney failure. High blood pressure runs in her family, something doctors say can be a contributing factor. For nearly three years after her diagnosis, Chester spent close to four hours a day three times a week hooked to a dialysis machine. Because she had no other health problems, the doctor immediately placed her on the waiting list for a new kidney.
"The Red Cross was a place I could do something to help people and by helping people I helped myself," said Sarah Chester, who became an American Red Cross volunteer while awaiting a kidney transplant and enduring four-hour dialysis treatment three times a week.
(Photo Credit: American Red Cross)
"He didn't give me a choice. He said ‘you're going on the list'," she said.
The dialysis was exhausting and depressing. The young woman, who was a trained paralegal and had experience as a front desk clerk and reservationist, needed something to keep her mind busy, and her therapist suggested she try doing something for others.
In August 2006, Chester chose to volunteer at the local American Red Cross chapter, where she found that she could use her skills assisting in the front office. She also chose to volunteer at Chapin Memorial Library and Citizens Against Spousal Abuse.
"The Red Cross was a place I could do something to help people and by helping people I helped myself," Chester said. "I was starting to feel much better about myself in general."
It wasn't long before Chester received the call that there was a kidney available, and she'd have to be ready to go to the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) in Charleston for surgery. But, within 30 minutes, she received a second call saying the recipient on the list ahead of her had been cleared for surgery; he would get the kidney this time.
"I probably wasn't as upset as I could've been," she said. "I understood – I just hoped the kidney worked out for him, and they gave me a lot of hope."
Within a week, she had some good news. On Friday at 8 p.m., she got a call saying she'd have to be at MUSC by midnight to prepare for a transplant the next day. A week later, Chester called her Red Cross friends to let them know that she'd had the surgery and to report that all had gone well.
She and husband Will live within a mile of the Red Cross chapter so after two months of recuperating and following doctor's orders, Chester chose to return to her volunteer position there.
"It took a month before I could walk around without too much soreness and pain," she said, adding that weekly trips to the doctor in Charleston also were tiring. "But once the doctors said I could come less often, I needed to get back out to do something."
Shortly after returning to her volunteer position at Red Cross, Chester's white blood count dropped enough to make the doctors concerned about her ability to fight off germs. So, she has again taken some time off to regain her strength, determined that she would be back at the front office before long.
"Knowing I'm a small part of doing something, giving referrals, helping someone in the office and I can do it to make their job easier – it's just nice knowing I can be of help."
As she recuperates and regains her strength, Chester is considering her options and said that she looks forward to going back to work – either in tourism or with a law firm. But, she offers advice for anyone with time on their hands.
"If you're in a situation, pick something you like to do and go and volunteer," Chester advised. "If you are doing something – anything – to help other people, you will feel better. Truly – it did a lot for me."
As for how she is feeling about the future: "I'm a very blessed person," she said.
Angela Nicholas is the executive director for the Coastal South Carolina Chapter of the American Red Cross.
The American Red Cross helps people prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies. Last year, almost a million volunteers and 35,000 employees helped victims of almost 75,000 disasters; taught lifesaving skills to millions; and helped U.S. service members separated from their families stay connected. Almost 4 million people gave blood through the Red Cross, the largest supplier of blood and blood products in the United States. The American Red Cross is part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. An average of 91 cents of every dollar the Red Cross spends is invested in humanitarian services and programs. The Red Cross is not a government agency; it relies on donations of time, money, and blood to do its work.