Not long ago Marinique Rossouw of Brakpan, east of Johannesburg, could hardly dare to dream she’d have any kind of future at all. She was at death’s door, in the final stages of kidney disease which robbed her of energy and left her a pain-racked shell.
Yet the 17-year-old is alive and well today thanks to her mom’s best friend who donated her kidney to save the teenager’s life. Marinique knows that without Erika Stieler (55) she wouldn’t be around to tell her moving story.
Her mom, Marinda (48), met Erika at a birthday party 15 years ago and the two became inseparable. Marinique is also best friends with Erika’s daughter, Nadine (18), so the family ties are strong – and after the selfless donation Erika made, she and Marinique have a bond for life.
When Marinique’s kidney failure was first diagnosed six years ago, Erika didn’t hesitate to make a decision. “Her diagnosis had me thinking how I’d feel if it had been my daughter, Nadine, who’d received that news – and the anxiety we’d have to suffer while waiting for a donor,” Erika recalls.
“Just days after Marinique’s diagnosis I told Marinda, ‘I have the same blood type as your daughter and I want to give her a kidney when the time comes’. ”
It would be five years before the operation could no longer be delayed.
Surgery was scheduled and Erika and Marinique were admitted to hospital – one to give life, the other to receive it.
“There aren’t enough words to say thank you to someone who put her own life on the line to give you a second chance at living,” Marinique says.
For the first time since her diagnosis in 2012 at the age of 12 Marinique is opening up about her all-consuming battle with kidney disease.
She’d suffered constant headaches, pain and fatigue for four years
That is before the diagnosis, but she pushed on – until the day the pain became too much to bear.
“It was sudden. I woke up one morning in June 2012 and I just knew something was wrong,” she recalls. But she had no clue about the nature of the disease that had been hiding in her body for so long.
“For years I hoped I’d outgrow these inexplicable pains that had plagued me since early childhood but they never really went away,” she says.
At the end of June 2012 she was admitted to hospital with stomach ulcers and her dangerously high blood pressure alerted doctors to the presence of a more serious problem.
A month and a half went by during which the family were referred from one hospital to the next in their desperate search for answers. And when that answer came they were shattered, Marinda tells us. Marinique was in stage 4 kidney failure – and doctors were unable to tell the family why.
“After that initial shock we were able to make peace with the fact that we finally had a diagnosis. At least we could start with the right treatment,” Marinique says.
When Erika heard the news she immediately decided she’d be a donor as she’d already determined they shared a blood type.
“I think Marinda wondered at the time why I’d make such an offer since a transplant wasn’t an immediate option,” Erika recalls. “But in my heart I knew I wanted to do this for her.”
In an effort to postpone the inevitable kidney transplant for as long as possible, Marinique radically adjusted her lifestyle. She started following a strict diet that eliminated all sweets and treats, along with handfuls of medication she had to take each day.
“It was important for me to stay positive,” Marinique says.“So I carried on with my life as usual – I didn’t allow myself to dwell on the fact that my world had become restricted.”
She managed the condition well enough for five years – but one day in December 2016 she woke up with the same severe symptoms as before her diagnosis.
Her period of grace was over.
“It was as if we were reading the same story a second time: vomiting, headaches that wouldn’t subside, the most incredible fatigue.”
Doctors confirmed their fears. Just weeks later, early in the new year, Marinique started dialysis because her kidney function had deteriorated drastically. The kidney failure had taken such a toll on her body she was left with virtually no immune system. Because of her illness she was able to go to school for only two weeks of her Grade 11 year last year.
But Erika hadn’t forgotten her promise and shortly before Marinique started dialysis Erika went for a battery of tests to determine her suitability as a donor.
The tests confirmed she was a match, and in June last year Erika and Marinique were both wheeled into an operating theatre hours apart.
‘I refer to her as my kidney mom. The selfless woman who’s the reason I’m still here today’
“I was pacing the hospital corridors in sheer anxiety,” Marinda says. “I was afraid something would happen to Erika on the operating table. I kept wondering what I’d tell Nadine if her mom failed to wake up because she’d tried to save my daughter’s life.
“When Erika opened her eyes, she said, ‘It was all worth it . . .’ And in that moment we realised this was something that would make our bond last forever.”
When Marinique woke up hours later after a successful transplant, everyone was overcome with emotion. The relief was indescribable. “Everything worked out exactly as God had planned,” Marinique says.
Despite having missed almost her entire academic year, Marinique was determined to write her final Grade 11 exams.
“I’ve had to rely on faith so many times in my life that this time too I truly believed I could do it,” she said.
And she was right – she could. After many hours of intensive studying, she passed Grade 11. After matric Marinique wants to study psychology. She hopes to work with young people who are preparing to have an organ transplant.
“I’m continually filled with gratitude whenever I imagine that I might still have been lying in a hospital bed praying for a suitable donor if it hadn’t been for Auntie Erika.
“That’s why I refer to her as my kidney mom . . . The selfless woman who’s the reason I’m still here today. “For decades I’ll be living with a part of her in me. And every day I’ll remember that someone gave some of herself so I can be here today and every day after that.”