Nov. 20, 2008— -- Some romances build over dinner and flowers. This one blossomed over medication and dialysis.
What began as a simple pharmacist-customer relationship turned into much more for Julie Wallace and Justin Lister, who struck up a friendship, then a romance that led to Wallace giving Lister a kidney.
When they met a little more than a year ago, Wallace, 46, was working as a pharmacist and manager at Dillon's grocery store pharmacy in McPherson, Kan., where Lister, 26, was dragging himself in to pick up a cocktail of prescriptions for his kidney disease.
"He kept coming into the pharmacy, getting all kinds of medication and just looking really bad," Wallace told ABCNews.com. "I told him that if there's anything I can ever do for him to let me know."
As it was, Lister was already getting help from his family, his friends and his church after a simple workplace injury led to an infection that threatened his life.
He was working in a machine shop when he got a metal splinter stuck in his right thigh. It became infected and triggered an auto-immune reaction that caused his body to attack his kidneys, a condition known as post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis.
"I went from being a healthy 25-year-old, active, working a lot, to ... being in a hospital for over a month straight," he said.
While doctors rushed to figure out what had caused Lister's swift decline, he gained 60 pounds of water weight in a week as his kidneys shut down.
Eventually, he found himself at the hospital three times a week for five hours a day, hooked up to a dialysis machine. And even that wasn't without complications: Lister said he had 15 surgeries in a year to put catheters in and then take them out when problems arose.
"It was a pain in the butt," he said.
Since he couldn't work, his parents and church donations helped pay his rent and bills while his status of being in "end-stage renal disease" qualified him for Medicare coverage. He said he's still in litigation to get his medical costs covered by worker's compensation.
When Lister met Wallace, his kidneys were functioning at less than 10 percent.
Over the next couple of months, their friendship blossomed from casual conversations at the pharmacy counter to breakfasts out. Then Wallace started driving Lister to his dialysis appointments.
Eventually, they fell in love and, in March, moved in together.
"There was just something about Justin," Wallace said, pointing to his good attitude throughout his struggles.
Beating the Odds
Wallace said she broached the idea of being his kidney donor after attending classes with Lister as he prepared to get put on the kidney transplant list, where he would have likely stayed for some time.
But the odds of Lister's new girlfriend being a match weren't great. His mother had already been rejected as a possible donor.
"I just didn't ever consider it as a possibility," Lister said, "because the chances were so remote."
But tests showed that not only did they both have A-positive blood types, they were a tissue match as well. Still, Lister said, his relationship with Wallace didn't make it any easier to accept her offer.
"I felt funny about taking someone else's kidney," he said.
On Oct. 21, after 3½ months of medical testing for Wallace, including a mammogram and kidney function tests, and psychological evaluations for both, they were wheeled into the operating room at the St. Francis campus of Via Christi Regional Medical Center in Wichita, some 50 miles south of McPherson.
"I thought she was an angel, I swear," Lister said. "I knew that God had sent her or something."
Wallace went in first to have her kidney removed and Lister followed to receive the organ. Wallace said she chose to have an open incision versus a faster-healing laparoscopy because there was less chance of complications for the kidney.
"The first thing I did, after anesthesia, was to ask if she was okay," Lister said, adding that it's something he doesn't remember doing.
The couple's doctor, Dr. Charles Shield, said although they see all different types of transplant couples, Lister and Wallace's story was certainly unique and it was fun to get to know them.
Shield, a professor of surgery at the University of Kansas School of Medicine at Wichita, and the hospital's director of transplantation and operating room director, said the hospital will do 40 kidney transplants this year, up from 30 in 2007.
Four days after surgery, Lister and Wallace were well enough to go home, where they were aided by their parents, friends and Wallace's pharmacy co-workers.
Lister already is back at work as a groundskeeper for the McPherson Recreation Commission. Wallace was out of action for eight weeks. Between her medical leave and some saved up vacation, she's not due back to the pharmacy until after the first of the year.
"We're feeling excellent," Wallace said. "Justin is so much better off."
The greenish-grey tinge his skin had before the surgery has given way to a healthy pink glow, she said.
Shield said Lister's greatest risk of complications come from the possibility that his body may one day reject Wallace's kidney. He now takes more than a dozen medications daily, a number that will dwindle to about six in a few months once he's considered stable.
"Otherwise, they're like normal people after a fairly short amount of time," he said.
While the couple is preparing for "the greatest Christmas ever" -- they already put up lights -- Lister said they will also make a holiday out of Oct. 21.
"That's his new birth date," Wallace said.