Family House Diaries: A New Heart + A New Kidney = A New Life

A new heart and a new kidney give a 28-year-old Wilson woman, unwell since age 7, a second chance at life. Crystal Sharpe becomes the 11th recipient of a heart and kidney transplant at UNC Hospitals.

Family House Diaries: A New Heart + A New Kidney = A New Life click to enlarge Crystal Sharpe, at left, and her mother, Patricia Sanders.

Media contact: Tom Hughes, (919) 966-6047,

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Written by Elizabeth Swaringen for UNC Health Care

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Crystal Sharpe’s smile radiates energy, even over the telephone.  A new heart and a new kidney will do that.

Sharpe, 28, of Wilson, N.C., received a new heart and a new kidney on March 27, becoming the 11th heart-kidney transplant patient at UNC Hospitals. Unwell since age 7, Crystal is ready to get on with living.

“I don’t think this was a hard journey,” said Crystal, matter-of-factly. “I know God had my back.  I know the surgeries had to be done. I really feel like I have more energy. I’m ready to get on with life.”

Crystal, a dynamo at 4’ 6” and 64 pounds, became a patient at UNC Hospitals in 2008 because her only kidney was growing weaker. She had lost her right kidney in 1989 to Wilm’s tumor, a rare kidney cancer in children.

Crystal started dialysis in January 2009 and in August contracted Stevens-Johnson Syndrome (SJS), a rare disorder in which skin and mucous membranes react severely to medications or infection. Already on the kidney transplant list, Crystal joined the heart transplant list with congestive heart failure in October 2010. 

Crystal had completed two years at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro and was working as a Wal-Mart manager when she got sicker. She moved back home to Wilson, to her primary caregiver, her mother, Patricia Sanders.

“Whenever she’s sick, I’m right there, always have been,” said Patricia, 49, who would spend weekdays in Greensboro and weekends in Wilson caring for her brother who had cancer. “I love my family, and I do whatever it takes to care for them.”

Crystal’s condition worsened and on Jan. 4 she was admitted to UNC Hospitals. Patricia came with her and when not at Crystal’s side, stayed at SECU Family House, a 40-bedroom hospital hospitality house minutes from UNC Hospitals.  Family House provides comfortable, convenient and affordable housing for seriously ill adult patients and their family member caregivers.

“Everything about Family House is good,” Patricia said. “I met a lot of different people there, and we were able to comfort each other.  And the variety of people and organizations voluntarily cooking is a special treat.”

On March 26, Patricia was in Wilson when the call came that donor organs were available.

“That very day we had held a fundraiser for Crystal with family and friends,” Patricia remembers. “We raised about $1,800. Crystal’s sister, Syreeta, carried a plate of food to UNC. Crystal ate it and about an hour and 15 minutes later she got the call there was a donor.”

Three carloads of family and friends with Patricia leading the way came to UNC Hospitals to see Crystal before the heart transplant surgery, which would be followed by the kidney transplant once Crystal stabilized. After visiting until the wee hours of March 27, all left but Patricia, who was with Crystal when word came that both the heart and the kidney – which had to come from the same donor – were for Crystal.

“When you need both a heart and a kidney it can be an ordeal to make sure everything matches up,” said Andy C. Kiser, MD, professor of surgery in the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the UNC Center for Heart and Vascular Care, who implanted the new heart. “It took us a few hours to make sure everything was going to work.”

By the time Dr. Kiser came to share the good news, both Crystal and Patricia had fallen asleep. Patricia figures she had been up about 36 hours since she was up at day break the day before cooking for the fundraiser.

“I’ll never forget their reaction,” Dr. Kiser said. “Her Mom woke up first, then Crystal. They are a very Christian family with a lot of faith in the Lord. They were extremely grateful and gratified and not the least bit apprehensive, although it was major surgery. When you have dealt with a chronic disease most of your life, you deal with life and death on a different level from most people. You see the surgery, however major, as another chance at life.”

And that’s what Crystal has done. She returned home on April 14 and looks forward to returning to her college studies in child development.

“She should begin to start living a normal life,” Dr. Kiser said. “She doesn’t have to do dialysis anymore, but we do have to continue monitoring her heart and kidney to make sure they are working as they should. She has such a wonderful attitude and a strong support network in her family. She is very dear to a lot of the staff because she was in the hospital so long. We are very optimistic she will do fine.”

And the smile? 

“As sick as she was, she never gave up, and she has always had a smile on her face,” said Patricia. “Now, it might just be a little bigger or a little deeper, if that’s possible.”

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