The first time Christine Higbee asked Zack Pacyna if he wanted her kidney, he thought she was joking. The second time, he figured she was still just kidding around.
By the third time, reality set in. Higbee wanted to know if Pacyna had gotten the phone number she could call to start the process. “Are you serious?” he asked.
The two had known each other for several years, but as Higbee explained, “I knew him, but I didn’t know-know him.” Theirs was a friendly co-worker relationship at the Lowe’s in Venice, Florida. He had worked overnight shifts with Higbee’s boyfriend and then with Higbee in delivery. She often teased him for his quick stride through the aisles, while her shorter legs struggled to keep up.
Suddenly, Pacyna moved to day shifts. She noticed he wasn’t walking as fast. “What’s up with Zack?” she asked her boyfriend one night. A quick text exchange divulged all the information she needed. Pacyna was on dialysis and needed a kidney.
“Well heck, he can have one of mine,” Higbee remembers saying.
Higbee and Pacyna’s lives couldn’t be more different. Higbee, 45, is a single mom with seven children, ages 25, 23, 21, 19, 17, 16 and 13.
Doctors diagnosed Pacyna with a type of kidney disease called Alport Syndrome at age 8. Alport is a rare genetic disease that attacks the blood vessels of the kidneys. The disease worsened in May 2015, and at 24, he found himself tethered to dialysis every night.
“It takes your life away because you basically can’t do anything. You’re stuck on a machine from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. every day,” he said. “Being young, it’s kind of no fun because you want to do stuff.”
It takes your life away because you basically can’t do anything. You’re stuck on a machine from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. every day. Being young, it’s kind of no fun because you want to do stuff.— Zack Pacyna, Lowe’s of Venice, Florida
Once Higbee decided she wanted to give Pacyna a kidney, she got to work – faster than the transplant list admins, who told her Pacyna hadn’t even been approved and cleared for the transplant list yet.
Finding a match is tricky, and those in need of a kidney are often reluctant to ask potential donors. April is National Donate Life Month, which was organized to encourage Americans to register as donors and help turn obstacles into opportunities. More than 100,000 Americans are waiting for a kidney transplant, but many people won’t receive a transplant simply because they don’t know how to ask.
Pacyna never had to.
Turns out, Higbee was a perfect match – and, fittingly, she got the call at work. But she remained wary. “I’d done my research, and I knew there were so many things that could go wrong,” she explained.
Most of her family and friends were supportive, but one daughter expressed reluctance. She worried, what if one of us kids needs a kidney? Higbee, with her typical good humor, referred her daughter to those six siblings available in the wings. “Zack doesn’t have that,” she explained.
Higbee was most worried about the lung capacity test she would have to pass to be cleared to donate her kidney. After all, she’d smoked for 20 years. That’s when her one reluctant child stepped up. “If you fail the test, I’ll donate my kidney,” she told Higbee.
So, Higbee quit smoking.
The road to organ donation is filled with blood tests, evaluations and doctors’ appointments. When doctors told Higbee they’d rather Pacyna receive a kidney from a “younger male,” she was taken aback. Pacyna simply said, “Nope. I’ll take yours.”
So, he did.
The week before their surgery, Higbee emailed her store team. “When asked repeatedly this last week ‘Why?’ my answer was always the same: ‘Why not? If you were driving down the road and someone needed your spare tire, would you just tell them, ‘Tough?’ I could not.”
She continued: “Zack is the hero. Not only does he come to work every day and has a great attitude, now he has to carry around a piece of me forever. Lol.”
Why not? If you were driving down the road and someone needed your spare tire, would you just tell them, ‘Tough?’ I could not. … Zack is the hero. Not only does he come to work every day and has a great attitude, now he has to carry around a piece of me forever. Lol.— Christine Higbee, Lowe’s of Venice, Florida
Their surgery took place December 7, 2016. Higbee was expected to stay in the hospital two days, but a bad reaction to medicine took its toll. When she finally could, she struggled to the hospital floor above, where Pacyna was recovering. “I felt sick, I was sweating, I was hurting, and I get up there, and there’s Zack, sitting up and having a cup of coffee,” she said, laughing.
It’s tough, even jokingly, to begrudge someone who couldn’t be more grateful. “I told her how much it meant,” Pacyna said. “It meant a lot because there’s not a lot of people in the world who are going to say, ‘Here’s a body part of mine.’ If it wasn’t for her, I’d probably still be on dialysis and on it for a while.”
With Higbee’s kidney onboard, Pacyna was ready to begin life – and meals – with fresh enthusiasm. Within days of the transplant, “I started to be able to eat a lot more,” he said. “When I was on dialysis, I could only eat like half a meal.”
He was also ready to get back to work. With his own determination bolstered by a kidney from a likewise determined donor, he got a doctor’s note and returned to work less than one month after surgery.
“I’m not a person that likes to sit around … I was getting real bored,” he said.
Today, Higbee is fully recovered, as well. “Quitting smoking was harder than giving a kidney,” she said. “There’s not a day that doesn’t go by that I don’t think I’d really like a cigarette. But I don’t want to. I always wanted to quit, but I never had a good enough reason.”
What made Pacyna the right reason? “He works hard, like all the time, and he never said, ‘Hey, I can’t do this,’ ” Higbee explained. “He always smiled, and people in end-stage renal failure are considered disabled, and he never played into it. Not everyone even knew that he was sick. He’s just awesome.”
He works hard, like all the time, and he never said, ‘Hey, I can’t do this. He always smiled, and people in end-stage renal failure are considered disabled, and he never played into it. Not everyone even knew that he was sick. He’s just awesome.— Christine Higbee, Lowe’s of Venice, Florida
Pacyna won’t soon forget Higbee’s ultimate gift. And in typical fashion, she’s unlikely to let him. “When I see her at work, she always says, ‘So how’s my kidney doing?’” he said, chuckling.
Higbee’s advice to others considering organ donation is matter-of-fact: “Just get tested, because it’s worth it. Why wouldn’t you?”
Remarkably, this wasn’t the only kidney transplant at Lowe’s in December. Click here to read about another Lowe’s employee who received a second chance at life, thanks to an unexpected gift from a co-worker.