Sometimes, the pain was so bad Sandy Lynch wished for death.
Three days a week for seven years — three to three and a half hours each session — the Fresno woman visited a dialysis clinic, where plastic tubes ran from her arm to a machine that filtered her blood, filling in for kidneys that no longer worked.
“I’d start screaming and my son and his dad would run in with ice packs and I’d have to be on pain pills,” Lynch recalled of many dialysis treatments. “I just prayed one night, I said, ‘God, cut my arm off or take me out of here,’ because I couldn’t take it.”
But early on Jan. 12, 1995, the universe showed her it had other plans. A doctor called with this message: Come to San Francisco now. We have a kidney for you.
Twenty years later, Lynch tearfully met her donor’s sister for the first time when Emily “Missy” McAlister flew into Fresno from Florida on Tuesday night.
McAlister and her older brother had made the decision to donate their brother Gary’s organs after he crashed into a pole and died of an aneurysm.
After Lynch wrote a thank you letter to her donor’s family two decades ago, McAlister and Lynch have been in frequent contact. And every year since the transplant, McAlister has sent a birthday card with $20 to Lynch’s son, Cory.
“Missy, my sister, gave me back my life,” Lynch said. And of her donor Gary: “I know he’s in heaven looking at me.”
Of seeing Lynch for the first time, holding a welcome banner at the airport with her son and mother, McAlister said, “The floodgates opened. When I saw the banner, I literally started to shake.”
The ladies spent a couple days together, visiting Yosemite National Park and San Francisco.
Because of the transplant, Lynch was able to raise her son and work for another 13 years at the Fresno County Department of Social Services. Lynch worked as a social worker, helping foster children find homes, assisting with a homeless program and investigating welfare fraud.
But Lynch’s ailment — caused by the Lupus that was diagnosed in her 20s — didn’t end with her 1995 transplant.
Thirteen years later, the kidney failed and she had to return to dialysis. The first time she waited for a kidney, she was on dialysis for two years. The second time, she waited five.
Lynch didn’t think she could do it again. Her right arm, which now has permanent nerve damage, swelled and clotted worse the second time doctors prodded her with needles and tubes.
In the dismal dialysis clinic, she lay beside other sick people who had lost arms and legs.
“I was devastated,” she said. “My life was gone again.”
Over the years, Lynch struggled through more than just Lupus and failed kidneys. She’s also had cancer, open heart surgery, been in a coma, endured bleeding stomach ulcers and fought a number of infections.
“How I endured that I don’t know,” Lynch said, but added that her strong Armenian heritage must have something to do with it, as well as the prayers and encouragement she’s received from family and friends.
“God would just put people there to give me hope, so I would hang onto that glimmer, that light at the end of the tunnel — which sometimes got really dark and covered up.”
Lynch would later learn that her son, now a student at Fresno State, threw away three scholarships without even looking at them. He couldn’t imagine going to college out of state while his mom suffered at home.
Addressing others who are sick, Cory Garner Lynch said, “Keep fighting, keep going. Live for your loved ones and vice versa, have your loved ones live for you. It has to be a team effort, you know. The sick can’t do it on their own. I definitely couldn’t do it by myself.”
In the fall of 2012, Lynch received her second kidney transplant. She wrote a thank you letter to that donor’s family, but she never heard back. Although the kidney she received from Gary no longer works, the long friendship with his sister endures.
McAlister said she decided to donate her brother’s organs when she suddenly realized “it was the right thing to do — because there were people that were in danger, people that were going to be losing their lives, and I was able to help these people.”
Lynch added, “Boy, isn’t that an understatement.”
Other people received organs from Gary. His other kidney, eyes and liver were also transplanted and gave others new life.
But Lynch and McAlister say they realize signing up to be an organ donor isn’t for everyone.
“I do understand that,” Lynch said, “and if they can’t do it, I’m respectful of that. But if they can, this is what could happen. They can touch so many people’s lives.”