CRANBERRY TWP — Oula Khalifa likes to travel. She works for Target, has three siblings and loves being with friends.
But until Dec. 28, 2018, Oula didn't have the energy to enjoy any of those things.
“In the last few years, it got really bad,” Oula said. “I could sleep 10 hours (a day), but I was exhausted.”
Oula, who is 29, developed a post-strep autoimmune infection when she was about 13 that eventually caused a chronic kidney disease.
After going through several forms of treatment — including steroids and chemotherapy — she turned to dialysis.
While it helped Oula maintain kidney function, the treatments were draining in the long run.
“Dialysis is not physiological,” said Dr. Khaled Nashar, Oula's nephrologist through Allegheny Health Network. “It's not normal.”
After about two years of dialysis and working full-time, Oula faced the fact she wasn't getting better.
“It was just work, dialysis, work, dialysis,” Oula said. “I was very much over dialysis.”
She ended up on the transplant list.
A family matter
Oula's illness did not hurt just her.
Her family felt the effects of the disease during the years she dealt with it.
Her mother, Fetoun, gave Oula dialysis treatments at home.
Her brother, Moustafa, gave Oula a kidney.
“It's not a disease that affects one person,” Moustafa said. “It kind of takes over.”
Moustafa is a medical student on rotation in New Jersey.
He said he chose to study medicine because he's an advocate for contributing to the community.
But Moustafa didn't know how much he could contribute until he faced the decision to become a donor.
In the fall of 2018, Moustafa left New Jersey on the weekends to undergo donor testing through AHN. He was the only person Oula had tested.
“I never really thought it through,” Moustafa said. “I know that tons of people live in this world with one kidney.”
When Moustafa got the news he was a perfect match for Oula, he was surprised and thankful.
Being a match was good.
Being a perfect match was excellent.
“This was ... fairly unique,” said Dr. Rachel Tindall, Oula's AHN transplant surgeon.
Transplants are usually harder on donors than recipients.
A recipient is in poor health and gaining a healthy organ. A donor is in good health and losing one.
“It does take the utmost attention to detail,” Tindall said.
Oula began recovery sooner than her brother. Moustafa said he had a collapsed lung during the procedure and needed some extra time to get well.
“I tried to be pretty optimistic about my recovery,” Moustafa said.
Moustafa said he was able to start moving four weeks after his surgery and returned to school Feb. 11.
Oula and Moustafa recovered together at home postsurgery. Their first major family outing — that Oula remembers — was a trip to Costco.
The siblings were close before the surgery, but the transplant brought them closer.
“I think that this has made us very close,” Oula said.
The first thing Oula asked about when she awoke from surgery was Moustafa.
The first thing Moustafa asked about was Oula.
Every time Oula sees an organ donor's driver's license, she's thankful. She knows first-hand how donors — especially living donors — save lives.
“It's not as easy as it sounds,” Oula said. “But it's worth more than anybody will ever know.”
There is always someone, according to Tindall, who needs an organ. And there is always someone willing to give one.
“People will come out of the woodwork,” Tindall said. “People are surprisingly generous through all walks of life.”
Moustafa will finish his education in the next two years. He's still figuring out what type of medicine he wants to practice.
Nephrology — the study of kidneys — is not out of the question for him.
Being directly involved with a transplant gives Moustafa a unique perspective in medical school.
But when he went into surgery, he decided to let his doctors be doctors. He focused on being a patient.
“I didn't think about it as a physician,” Moustafa said. “I allowed myself to step back.”
Living donors are vital to keeping patients in need alive. They eliminate wait time and often provide a higher quality of organ.
The challenge is finding the right donors for the right recipients.
“There are donors,” Nashar said. “We just need to connect them.”
“It's not an easy decision,” Moustafa said.
But he'd make it again.
“There's not a better organ she could have (found),” Moustafa said.
A happy ending
Oula is a perfect example of how transplants transform people, according to Nashar.
Nashar — who has known Oula for nearly 10 years — said she went from not being able to function on her own to being “a ball of energy.”
“There's nothing that she can't do,” Nashar said.
Oula's story is one of success.
Finding a perfect match in Moustafa means her anti-rejection treatment is limited to a single, once-a-month, two-hour IV treatment.
“It's ... a life saver,” Oula said. “I couldn't have asked for it to go any better.”
Now, Oula has checkups every three months. She takes some medication, but not as much as before. The days of sleeping 10 hours are gone.
Did Oula quit during the years she needed a kidney? No.
Did she feel like quitting? Yes.
But she got through her ordeal by staying positive: She smiled and worked and kept up with her dialysis.
Now, she sees her friends. She followed-up on a job promotion. She travels. She enjoys life.
Oula and Moustafa share a healthy, normal existence.
“Yeah, it's hard and it hurts,” Moustafa said. “But overall, it works out in the end.”
Oula, Moustafa and their parents participated in the annual Pittsburgh Kidney Walk in November for the first time.
Oula's favorite part was being able to wear a tag that said “Recipient.” Moustafa's tag said “Donor.” Their parents wore tags that said “Donor family.”
“We all understood how we felt,” Oula said. “Hang in there. It's always going to get better.”
Live donors help patients keep living
There are around 100,000 kidney transplant candidates in the United States.
Living organ donors are important to patients in need of transplants because they can provide immediate assistance.
“The need for organs is ... dire,” said Dr. Khaled Nashar, an Allegheny Health Network nephrologist.
AHN Transplant Institute is a member of the National Kidney Registry. The registry is the biggest living donor pool in the world, according to AHN.
AHN's Living Donor Kidney Program works to promote and inspire living donors. Living donors help to cut wait time and provide exceptionally healthy organs.
“All it really takes is a phone call,” said Dr. Rachel Tindall, an AHN surgeon.
Potential donors can learn more about AHN's Living Donor Program by calling 412-359-4441. Interested parties can also visit www.ahn.org/specialties/transplant-institute/living-donor-kidney-program.
Donors must be between 18 and 70 years old, and must complete a prescreening.