Zootopia inspires East Texas woman to donate kidney

Zootopia inspires East Texas woman to donate kidney
Source: Sommer Willis
Source: KTRE Staff
Source: KTRE Staff
Source: KTRE Staff
Source: KTRE Staff
Source: Sommer Willis
Source: Sommer Willis

It was an unlikely childrens movie that convinced one East Texas mother to be the change she wished to see in the world and donate her kidney to a fellow mother in need.

That mother was Amanda Russell, who battled various medical issues from a young age. At just 15 years old, she received her first kidney transplant, but following a successful surgery, her life seemed to return to normal.

"I went back to school, got married, had a little girl. I lived a normal life for 12 years," Russell said. "But this year is when things started to go downhill."

Her doctors explained that one day, this kidney would need to be replaced as well.

"Transplants usually last about 12 years, so I knew the time was coming when I would need another one," Russell said. "But in order to get approved for the transplant list, you have to get cardiac clearance.  We thought this was just routine and would be super easy for me. That's when they found fluid around my heart."

When various medical treatments were unsuccessful at removing the fluid, her doctors told her heart surgery would need to be the next step. More than a liter of fluid was removed by making a hole in the sac of her heart.

However, one successful heart surgery later, she was still in need of a new kidney.

At first, their family decided her father would be the donor since they shared the same blood type, but after being denied for medical reasons, her husband was next in line.

"Well, that's when I got a phone call from Sommer, and she said, 'I'll give you my kidney. I would love to do that for you,'" Russell said. "But I had already received so many messages from other people saying the same thing, and you just have to take it with a grain of salt. They don't understand what you really have to go through, but when Sommer called it was different. I knew she meant it."

Willis's donation would mean Russell's husband could remain at home to take care of their five-year-old daughter. The two knew each other through Russell's husband who went to high school with Willis, but they would soon go from acquaintances to life long friends.

"I am a mother of two little girls, so when I heard what Amanda was going through, I knew I had to do something," Willis said. "I remember her posting something about everyone complaining about their Monday being crazy and how she just wished she could have a normal manic-Monday home with her child."

Instead she was at a Houston hospital receiving treatment, and continuing the process of approval to be on the donor list again. Willis said she thought about offering her kidney for weeks, but it was the Disney movie Zootopia that convinced her to follow through.

"I was laying in bed one night watching Zootopia with my little girls," Willis said. "There's this part at the end of the movie when Judy Hops, you know the little bunny? When she says 'The change starts with you.'"

That was the moment she knew she had the opportunity to make a difference in someone's life and give Amanda the second chance she desperately needed.

"She didn't want me to do it, but I took initiative and contacted the hospital myself, and started going through the first steps," Willis said.

This is when the grueling process began for them to not only identify if the two were a match, but if Willis's kidney was healthy enough for a transplant.

"Whenever they put us in front of the medical review board they thought we were sisters," Amanda said. "It was an almost perfect match."

Willis said this was a sign from God that she was meant to donate a kidney, and give Amanda an opportunity she would not otherwise receive.

"I get to be with my family, my husband, my daughter," Russell said. "One thing I am most excited about is I get to be a mother again. If my little girl wants to go outside and play, I am going to go outside and play, because now I am able to."

Willis said that donating a kidney was the best decision she has ever made, and challenges more people to donate organs for others who are desperately in need.

Reminding all, that the change starts with you.

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