Seattle Barista Gives Gift of Life to Ailing Customer

Two strangers -- donor and recipient -- met across an espresso bar.

ByRussell Goldman and Susan Donaldson James
February 10, 2009, 6:26 PM

March 14, 2008 — -- Every day for three years, Annamarie Ausnes went to her local Seattle Starbucks for her usual morning coffee. She developed a casual relationship with the barista that soon percolated and ultimately saved her life.

Sandie Andersen, 51, a chatty server who struck up conversations with her regulars, had no idea Ausnes had spent the last seven years on a kidney transplant list and was getting sicker and sicker.

But one day last fall, Andersen noticed a sadness in Ausnes' voice and pushed her to talk about her failing health. Told that Ausnes was in dire need of a transplant, the barista offered to be tested to see if she was a candidate to donate her own kidney.

Today, the two women are recovering at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Tacoma, Wash., each astonished at the chain of events that began over an order of "short drip, double-cupped" coffee and ended with a genetic match.

Early this week, in an act of magnanimous generosity, Andersen gave Ausnes her kidney.

"This is a miracle, an absolute miracle," Ausnes told one day after Tuesday's four-hour transplant surgery. "None of my family members tested were matches. I was facing a life of five to seven years of dialysis and worsening health. She saved me from that."

"I didn't think I'd feel this good so soon," said Ausnes, who was able to get out of bed and see Andersen in her room for a "nice little visit."

Wednesday, Andersen was feeling nauseated and in pain and couldn't talk to the press, but she is on the road to recovery, according to Alisha Mark, spokeswoman for the Virginia Mason Medical Center. Both women will stay in the hospital for about a week.

Andersen's husband, Jeffrey Andersen, said he admired his wife's selflessness for helping a stranger. "If you can save somebody's life, it's special," Andersen told the Seattle Post Intelligencer. "It's what Sandie wanted to do."

Ausnes, who works at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, had suffered from polycystic kidney disease for 20 years. Each day the condition worsened, and she worried that she would eventually not be a healthy candidate for a new organ.

The disease eventually leads to kidney failure. By November of 2007, her kidneys were functioning at 15 percent; at 12 percent, she would have required a transplant.

Part of her regular routine was to stop each day at the Starbucks on her way to work. "I order the same thing every day," she said.

"Sandie is so observant that one day she noticed I wasn't myself," said Ausnes. "I told her that I had health issues and, after a little more prodding, told her I was on the national kidney waiting list. Without hesitation she said she would take the test."

"I felt like a thunderbolt had gone through my body," said Ausnes, who urged Andersen to talk to her family first. The next morning the barista said her husband and kids were behind her "100 percent."

A few days elapsed, and Ausnes returned for her morning coffee. "I'm a match," Andersen reported.

As a line of customers weaved outside the door, the two "stood there bawling our eyes out," according to Ausnes. "She said, 'Maybe I'm you're angel,' and all I could think was, Yes, yes, she is an angel sent for me."

Ausnes and Andersen went public with their story in the hopes that live donors would consider gettng tested for transplant surgery.

"This is happening more and more," said Howard Nathan, founder and CEO of the Gift of Life Institute in Philadelphia. "People have anonymously said they want to donate a kidney and show up on the transplant center door saying, 'I want to help somebody. I have done well in my life, and I want to give a kidney.'"

In 2007, the Rev. Karen Onesti, a Methodist, offered her kidney to Rabbi Andrew Bossov, after they met at an interfaith religious conference in New Jersey. One year after the successful transplant, Bossov told the Courier Post, "It's nice to know there can be friendships that last through the years and new friendships that blossom with such great consequences."

Both stories underscore the need for live donors, which have a higher success rate than transplants that come from cadavers. According to Nathan, more than 74,746 Americans are waiting for kidneys. Another 97,755 are on wait lists for other organs, such as hearts, livers, lungs and pancreases.

In kidney transplants, patient survival is 98 percent for living kidney donations and 96 percent for deceased donations. "That means the recipient is still alive, even if the organ failed," said Nathan.

While it is more desirable to have a good genetic match like Andersen and Ausnes', donors and recipients only need be the same blood type and can be unrelated. The first kidney transplants were only done on identical twins, but now, with new medications to prevent organ rejection, "matching has become less important," said Nathan.

Only 15 years ago, just 2,500 kidney transplant recipients were living. Today, that number has risen to 7,000, due to advances in medicine and safety.

The living donor procedure itself has been reduced to a laparoscopy with three small incisions to remove the kidney. Donors are discharged in less than a week.

"There is almost no mortality," said Nathan.

Howard D. Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, called both women when he learned of the transplant. He called Andersen and told her "how proud I am to have someone like you working for our company," according to The New York Times.

This is not Andersen's first good deed. She has reportedly done missionary work in Mexico and volunteered to dig mud out of houses after Hurricane Katrina.

Ausnes has returned the favor and been a Good Samaritan herself. She is making sure her guardian angel is well looked after. The barista will be out of work for six to eight weeks, so Ausnes organized a fundraiser to help.

"I didn't want her to be in financial trouble," Ausnes said. "So we're helping with house payments."

Within weeks after their first November encounter, the women began a friendship, and their husbands went out to dinner. Both hope to continue that relationship.

"I've not only gained a part of her, I've gained a friend for life," said Ausnes. "Sandie is an amazing lady. She is a lot of fun and has a wonderful, humorous personality."

The women — once strangers separated by an espresso bar — now share a special legacy: Ausnes' future.

"I'm going to get to see my granddaughter grow up," said Ausnes. "I'm going to get to retire with my husband … I have my whole life ahead of me now."

How to become a donor.

How to give money.

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