Blue Band Alum Provides Life-Saving Kidney Donation To Fellow Grad

The way Penn State brings people together is often unexpected at times. But out of these surprising connections brings the most inspiring and memorable stories.

Penn State alumni Alyssa Ford and Ashley Waters reconnected within the last few months in probably the most unconventional way of all. When Ford was in dire need of a kidney transplant, Waters stepped up to donate one of her kidneys to save Ford’s life.

Waters and Ford knew of each other during their time in the Blue Band. Ford and Waters rode on the same bus as a sousaphone player and majorette, respectively. Waters became close friends with Ford’s now-husband, Jon, at the time. Neither of them could have guessed then that their initial meeting would transcend beyond Penn State.

In late 2019, Ford noticed that she was feeling more tired than usual but attributed it to trying to keep up with her active young daughter. Around that same time, she had just been put on medication due to her family’s history of high blood pressure.

However, her fatigue persisted, and she was sent for a blood test, which found that her creatinine levels were unusually high. Creatinine and other waste get passed from the blood through the kidneys to make urine, which was not happening for Ford.

No one else in Ford’s family has ever had kidney issues. By the end of February 2020, after going to the hospital, Ford was diagnosed with end-stage renal disease, which occurs when your kidneys are no longer able to work to your body’s needs.

“Especially not having any family history, the doctors aren’t right away going to kidney problems,” Ford said. “They try to fix the other possible problems first. It was just totally out of the blue.”

Aside from her bloodwork, Ford also had a kidney biopsy which was able to tell what was specifically wrong with her kidneys. The biopsy concluded that Ford had a chronic disease, IgA Nephropathy, which doctors found could have been in her body for years and not even known.

From there, Ford spent four hours a day for three days a week away from her family receiving dialysis treatments. Unfortunately, her kidney’s health only continued to decline.

Her only chance of truly getting better was to receive a kidney donation. But her blood type, B-negative, put her at even more of a disadvantage. Less than 2% of the population has B-negative blood, which meant that it would be about eight to 10 years before a deceased donor could match with her.

“Knowing that the only cure for me was to have a transplant and how difficult it would be was really tough because I thought ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so young,'” Ford said.

When Ford realized that the chances of her getting a new kidney that perfectly matched as soon as possible seemed unlikely, her mind went into mom-mode, immediately thinking about her daughter.

“My thoughts were always of my daughter and what would happen with her if something would happen to me,” Ford said emotionally.

After waiting a while to go public, Ford’s husband, Jon, who’s also a Penn State and Blue Band alum, put out a Facebook post in hopes that someone might be a perfect match.

To Ford’s surprise, many people she knew signed up to be tested to see if they would be able to donate. But the most unexpected surprise came with Waters, who was close friends with Ford’s husband in the Blue Band, signed up to be tested and found out she was a perfect match.

“I actually found out that I had a donor — a perfect match — and because of HIPPA, they wouldn’t tell me who it was. So it was actually a little while before I found out specifically that it was [Waters],” Ford said.

And if that wasn’t crazy enough, Ford and Waters both live in Maryland outside of the Washington, D.C. area, not very far from the hospital where the transplant happened.

A few factors played into Waters’ decision to donate to Ford. Obviously, part of it had to do with the Penn State and Blue Band connection, but the most important reason was that Waters could relate to being a mom just like Ford.

“Becoming a mom changes you,” Waters said. “My son is older than Alyssa and Jon’s daughter, and as a mom, I can’t imagine going to dialysis for hours a day each week and missing out on so many things.”

In January of this year, both Ford and Waters met again at Medstar Georgetown University Hospital where the transplant took place. For Waters, probably the strangest part of going into surgery was the fact that neither she nor Ford could have any family members with them in the hospital and needed to rely on the nurses if they needed something.

Luckily, the surgery and recovery went well for both Ford and Waters. As soon as Ford received her new kidney, it automatically started producing urine, indicating that the new kidney was working well and a perfect fit.

Both Ford and Waters stressed the importance of organ donations and can clearly testify to how one act of kindness can be the difference between life and death, especially during a pandemic.

“For me, this pandemic has shown me if I can do anything to help someone, why wouldn’t I want to do it? Because there’s no guaranteed tomorrow for me or anyone else,” Walters said.

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About the Author

Mackenzie Cullen

Sadly, Mackenzie graduated from Penn State in 2022. She majored in English and served as one of Onward State's associate editors. You can keep up with her life and send compliments to @MackenzieC__ on Twitter.

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