The sisters grew up in different households in Cumberland County after their parents divorced — one with their father and the other with their mother — and though they would see each other at school and once in a while on other occasions, they were never close.
As the years rolled by and they moved away, they became even more distant, not seeing each other at one stretch for perhaps 20 years. A few years ago, they found each other on Facebook before the oldest, Becky Anderson, lost her enthusiasm for the social media platform and dropped out of contact again.
But last summer the younger sister, Amy Anderson McCormick, heard from a relative that Anderson was in poor health and needed a kidney transplant. At the time, Anderson was slowly moving up the transplant list as she awaited a deceased donor.
With the encouragement of her husband, Daniel, McCormick tracked down her sister’s cellphone number and, out of the blue, sent her a text message. They exchanged pleasantries in the first few back-and-forths before McCormick got around to her point: She told her sister she hadn’t seen in decades that she wanted to be tested to determine if she could give her one of her kidneys.
Anderson, 51, who lives in Glen Allen, surprised McCormick when she said no.
“She said she didn’t want to upset someone’s life,” recalled McCormick, 48, who doesn’t seem to be the sort of person to take an initial “no” for a final answer. “I kept persisting.”
Eventually, McCormick wore down Anderson’s resistance.
“After I thought about it for a while, I thought, ‘It was meant to be.’ I don’t think I was used to anybody being that nice,” Anderson said with a laugh. “But then, I thought ‘maybe my sister is that nice! How lucky am I?’”
The week before the tests in November, Anderson and McCormick got together at McCormick’s home in Rice, in Prince Edward County, along with their youngest sister, Cathy Webb, who drove over from her home in Buckingham County. It was the first time the three of them had been together in 30 years.
“All afternoon, we laughed and shared pictures and got caught up on each other’s lives,” said Anderson.
Only five years separated the three sisters in age, but the gap for the girls had grown far wider since their parents divorced when they were young. Anderson, then 8 years old, stayed with their mother, as did Webb; McCormick went to live with their father. Cumberland is not a crowded county, so they were enrolled in the same schools at times.
“We saw each other, but we just didn’t really have a sisterly relationship,” Anderson said.
The tests measuring McCormick’s suitability as a donor came back positive, and she was deemed a good candidate to donate a kidney to Anderson, who was diagnosed with kidney disease 20 years ago and had been on daily dialysis for the last four years. Then came a series of pre-transplant appointments, most of them at Henrico Doctors’ Hospital’s Virginia Transplant Center. McCormick would make the 90-minute drive from Rice, while Webb made her own 90-minute drive from Buckingham to join her older sisters at the appointments and the lunches or dinners that were always part of the gatherings.
“It was amazing,” Anderson said of the effort her sisters went to.
The night before the transplant, which was scheduled for March 27, the three sisters gathered in the hospital. Anderson and McCormick had a sleepover with pajamas and stuffed animals; Webb was part of the festivities until about midnight. The next morning, just before the anesthesia took effect and the two were rolled into the operating room, Anderson blew McCormick a kiss. McCormick reached up and caught it with her hand.
“It was a sweet moment,” Anderson said.
I interviewed the sisters at Henrico Doctors’ two weeks after the transplant, and both said they couldn’t have felt better.
“I feel amazing,” said Anderson, who processed insurance claims before her declining health required her to go on long-term disability. She hopes to return to work in the coming months. “I had no idea I was that sick. Even on dialysis, I thought I was fine. Now I have so much energy. It’s wonderful.
“I call it, ‘My Life, Chapter Two.’”
Said McCormick, a mail carrier: “I did a little research. I knew it wouldn’t alter my life except for the six weeks afterwards. Other than that, no drastic change for me at all.”
She paused and looked across the room and smiled at Melissa Van Syckle, the living donor transplant coordinator at the Virginia Transplant Center, and added, “Drink more water, I know.”
April is National Donate Life Month, which is a way to promote the importance of tissue, organ and eye donation, and to honor those who have saved lives with their gifts to others. According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, the Richmond-based nonprofit organization that manages the nation’s organ transplant system under contract with the federal government, there were 36,500 transplants in 2018, the sixth consecutive record-breaking year. Among the 2018 transplants, there were almost 6,900 living donors, the highest total since 2005.
As someone who works with living donors, Van Syckle has surely heard some inspiring stories.
“I do,” she said, “and this one’s great.
“Everybody has a story. Living donor transplants are special. You’re talking about … [receiving] something that’s a gift that you can never repay.”
Anderson knows that feeling very well, but McCormick said Anderson “doesn’t realize how much she’s blessed me, too.”
“I just wanted her to have a better life,” she said. “I mean, I had heard she wasn’t able to enjoy a lot of things I knew she liked. Like we said, we didn’t have a falling-out or anything. I still cared.”
They text each other every day and vow to never lose touch again.
After giving away her kidney, McCormick got something else: her sisters.
“They’re my best friends now,” she said. “There was always something missing in my life, and it was them.”