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Tribune photo by Aaron Piper / Jared Thomas sits next to his sister, Kaleigh Thomas. Kaleigh donated a kidney to her brother after his went into failure in June.

By Lori McDonald
For The Republic

When her brother needed a third potentially life-saving kidney transplant, a young Brownstown woman didn’t hesitate. After all, if it went well, it could be the last transplant her brother would ever need.

Kaleigh Thomas, 24, knew her decision would affect her entire family, but nobody more than her 29-year-old brother, Jared Thomas, who was born with a kidney disorder.

“It was about four months ago when we found out that Jared would need another transplant,” Thomas said. “Right away, me and a bunch of family members stepped up to start getting tested. Me and several of our cousins went at the same time to get a tissue typing test to see who would be the best match.”

Kaleigh learned she was the only match, so doctors moved forward with more testing for her to make sure she was healthy enough to be a donor. The testing took two to three months to complete. Time was of the essence, so it was stressful for the whole family.

“Kaleigh was the only family member that hadn’t already donated that was a match for Jared. Our entire family bonded together in prayer and faith that God would provide in his time and with his plan,” said Rhonda Thomas, Kaleigh and Jared’s mother. “We have a very big extended family that is so supportive, and we love and appreciate them dearly.”

But Rhonda and her husband, Tim Thomas, didn’t want to pressure their daughter.

“We would never want to sacrifice one child for another,” Rhonda said. “We were very thankful that Kaleigh was willing and able to help her brother, but we didn’t want any added pressure on her.”

Longtime disorder

Rhonda and Tim Thomas have been married for 32 years. They both of them graduated from Brownstown Central High School — Tim in 1975 and Rhonda in 1980. Tim is now a technician at Silgan Plastics in Seymour, and Rhonda works at God’s Lil Blessings day care in Brownstown, where she is a partner in the business.

Jared was born with a kidney disorder that eventually led to kidney failure and his first transplant in 1999 at the age of 12. His mother was the donor.

“Seventeen years ago in July of 1999, Jared received his first kidney transplant, which was donated by me,” Rhonda said. “However, Jared’s body was going through a lot of changes due to puberty. The kidney began failing when he was a college freshman at Purdue University.”

Jared again needed a transplant in 2006. This time, the donor was his cousin, Blake Fish. Jared did well with the new kidney until the antirejection medications began taking took a toll on his body.

Another transplant

Another health setback came in 2009, when Jared was diagnosed with testicular cancer and learned he’d need chemotherapy.

After a stem cell transplant and several surgeries, Jared was given a clean bill of health, but he later suffered complications from the chemotherapy.

He ended up with kidney failure in June and was on hemodialysis, where a machine filters bodily waste because his kidneys can no longer do so. As his health got progressively worse, it became clear he’d need a third kidney transplant.

He needed another kidney transplant right away. As his health got progressively worse, family members came forward to help.

Rhonda said she had a feeling Kaleigh would one day be a donor for Jared, so she was not surprised that her daughter was willing to give up a kidney because she is a selfless and caring person.

“Because Jared always had illnesses, infections, hospital stays and surgeries, Kaleigh has always had to take a backseat,” Rhonda said. “Honestly, she has never complained, whined or even minded. She just knew that’s what needed to be done.”

Going through the process

After her decision was made, Kaleigh’s case was immediately assigned to transplant coordinator Kelly Coffey, who explained what the procedures were, answered her questions and was with her every step of the way.

“She made sure Kaleigh got all of the testing she needed, filled out all of the correct paperwork and assigned her to therapists that talked to Kaleigh,” Rhonda said. “She made sure she knew what she was doing and made sure she definitely wanted to do this.”

Surgery day was Oct. 12, and the brother and sister underwent their operations at the same time — Kaleigh in one room and Jared in the room next to hers at IU Health University Hospital in Indianapolis.

During the surgeries, Tim and Rhonda tried to stay positive. Family members and friends were there support them, including Pastor Jimmy Rodriguez from Kaleigh’s church, Immanuel Lutheran Church in Seymour. He prayed with the family while they waited.

“As far as surgery goes, they usually take the donor first, but Jared has a pretty complicated anatomy,” Kaleigh said. “So we went in at the same time, and he got done just a couple hours after me. Things went well, and I was released two days later, and Jared stayed in the hospital for about eight days.”

“Our faith in God is what has gotten us through everything Jared and now Kaleigh have gone through. We just know that God has a plan for us all, and He is protecting us at all times,” Rhonda said. “Everything goes according to God’s plan and in His time. Knowing and believing this, plus the love and support of all of our friends and family, is what has always gotten us through.”

Kaleigh graduated from IUPUI in 2014 and is employed at Riley Hospital for Children in the radiology department, where she is as an X-ray CT technician.

“I also help out at God’s Lil Blessings day care in Brownstown, where my mom works. I live in Indianapolis half the week and down here the other half,” Kaleigh said. “I’m trying to get all the way back down here, but I’m still loving Riley.”

Getting back to normal

Kaleigh expects to be back to work soon. Once healed, her body will be completely as it was before and she won’t notice she only has one kidney. Then she can get back to running and hiking, which she enjoys.

Jared’s recuperation time will take a little while longer, so he is taking some time off from his job at East Fork Farms in Brownstown to recover. He has post-op checkups two to three times a week, which will decrease over time.

Jared had been hopeful the kidney would come from a deceased donor because he didn’t want a family member to go through all of the testing and the surgery.

“I don’t think I could’ve stopped Kaleigh,” Jared said. “It was a brave thing to have surgery for no reason. It was thoughtful, and there’s a lot of love in that little heart.”

Always her hero

When Jared is well again and feeling up to it, he will be able to enjoy some of his hobbies, like playing guitar, gardening, fishing and hunting.

“Jared has always been Kaleigh’s hero, and when she was in high school, she wrote an essay for the Hoosier Hero contest and won a $1,000 scholarship,” Rhonda said. “Of course, her essay was written about Jared, her hero.”

Karec Terrell, Kayleigh’s fiance, thought that Kaleigh donating a kidney for Jared was heroic and a very selfless thing to do.

“She said anyone would do that for their brother, but I know that’s not the case, and it takes a special person to make such a sacrifice,” Terrell said.

Jared and his wife, Andrea Thomas, have been married for six years. She said in the past, she has been a nervous wreck when Jared’s health issues would flare up, but this time was different.

“I just prayed about it a lot and put it in the Lord’s hands,” Andrea said. “I just knew that it was all going to be OK, especially when the doctor said Kaleigh was a perfect match. It was a miracle.”