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TRUE SISTERHOOD

May 24, 2018

By JAMES EVANS
Rutherford County Schools

Angela Barnes and Valorie Estes have always considered themselves sisters, although they have nothing biological connecting them. 

At least, not yet. 

In June, Angela — the newly named principal of Wilson Elementary School — will donate one of her kidneys to Valorie, a fellow educator at the school. 

It may seem strange that a principal would donate an organ to one of her teachers, but not for Angela and Valorie, who have been inseparable since birth. 

“I’ve never known a day without her, why would I start now?” Angela said.

Valorie agreed: “She’s been family my whole life, so it’s as if it were an actual family member donating.”

To understand the depth of their connection, you must go back a generation. 

Angela is the daughter of Prentice and Linda Alsup, known by many as the retired founders of a successful heating and air conditioning business in Murfreesboro. 

Valorie is the daughter of Jim and Sandy Estes. Mr. Estes currently serves as the vice chairman of the Rutherford County Board of Education, and both he and his wife are retired educators with Rutherford County Schools. 

Jim first met Prentice in the seventh grade, and later while they were both in high school, Jim introduced Prentice to his future wife, Linda. Jim met and married Sandy after he returned from Vietnam, and the two couples became the closest of friends. 

So it was no surprise that when the Estes’ daughter, Valorie, was born, the Alsup’s brought their own six-week-old daughter, Angela, to the hospital to see her. It was the first meeting of two young girls who would spend the next 40-plus years side-by-side. 

They grew up about a half mile from each other in the Leanna area. In fact, Angela and Valorie still have a photo of them celebrating their first Christmas together, sitting atop their mothers’ laps. 

“I don’t think there’s any greater gift someone could give somebody,” Jim Estes said of the kidney donation. “It’s amazing that she was able to be a donor and them be friends this long. That’s kind of special. They’ve had a special relationship since birth.”

Kidney disease is nothing new in the Estes family.

Valorie’s grandmother suffered from polycystic kidney disease, commonly known as PKD. Her mother, Sandy, also had it, along with two of her siblings. Sandy received a transplant when she was in her 50s.

The disease is a genetic affliction. 

As such, it was no real surprise when Valorie, at age 21, was tested and told she too would one day need a transplant. 

Over the years since that diagnosis — Valorie is now in her early 40s — her kidney function has slowly, but steadily, decreased. 

In June 2017, Valorie was told she would need to go on the transplant waiting list, and it could take years before a compatible donor was found. If it took that long, she would likely need to start the agonizing process of dialysis — as her mother had done — to maintain her kidney function. 

“It’s about a five-year wait if you are looking for a deceased kidney because that’s the majority of donors,” Valorie said. 

Upon hearing this news, Angela did not hesitate and volunteered to be screened to determine if her kidney was a match. 

“She was coming out of a clinic and called to tell me she was on the transplant list, and I said, ‘Where do I sign up?’” Angela said.

But they had been told a match was unlikely. In fact, the doctors said the chances were less than 30% because the two are not biologically related. 

Then again, the doctors did not understand the bond — what’s considered an almost spiritual kinship —  between Angela and Valorie. 

After various rounds of screenings, it ultimately was determined Angela was a good match. 

Check that, she was a perfect match, the doctors discovered.

Turns out her left kidney — which is the only one that can be harvested laparoscopically — had only one artery and one renal vein, which is preferred. 

Her right kidney will take over the job of two and needs to have good blood flow. Angela’s right kidney has three arteries, which again, was ideal.  

“I go back to that verse in Ruth, ‘Perhaps this is why you were made,’” Angela said. “I know I was made to give her this kidney, no doubt in my mind. Even the doctor said that, ‘You were made to give her this kidney.’”

Angela’s family was supportive of the decision. 

“When I told my oldest, Ethan, he said, ‘Mom, that is the greatest news ever — you are saving her life,” Angela said. 

Her youngest child, Austin, was a little more pragmatic. 

“Mom, that’s great!” Angela said he said, but then he added, “But who’s going to feed me; who’s going to cook?”

Valorie’s family is relieved and thankful she won’t need to go through dialysis, but they were not surprised the two longtime friends were compatible. 

“My brother said, ‘You’ve kind of already been sisters. Of course she would be a match,’” Valorie said.

The surgery is scheduled for June 14 — three days after Angela’s 44th birthday — and will be completed at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. The recovery time for the donor is typically 2-3 weeks but she may experience periods of tiredness for a few months, Angela said. 

Angela plans to rest during the initial recovery period and then report back to work on July 11 to finish preparations for the start of another school year. 

Their story is remarkable and filled with what some might call amazing coincidences. 

But that’s not what sisters Angela and Valorie believe.

“God,” Angela said.

“Yep, that’s the only explanation I have,” said Valorie, finishing Angela’s sentence.

Angela continued, “He put our parents together a long time ago and kept us together.

“It’s a God thing.”

 

TOP PHOTO / JAMES EVANS
Wilson Elementary School Principal Angela Barnes, left, plans to donate a kidney in June to her best friend and fellow educator Valorie Estes, right. 

BOTTOM PHOTO / PROVIDED
On their first Christmas, Angela Barnes sits on the lap of her mother, Linda Alsup, alongside Valorie Estes sitting with her mother, Sandy.