CHARLESTON - Maybe it was Cpl. Ryan Fackey's natural inclination to give away almost anything.
Maybe it was his service as a U.S. Marine in Iraq, where he saw countless children who had lived much harder lives than his.
Or perhaps his decision to give away a kidney simply was the answer to a chorus of prayers flowing from Columbia.
"I thought I was making a difference in Iraq," Fackey, 21, said. "I'm making a difference now. I like making life-changing decisions."
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No matter what drove Fackey, his decision to donate one of his kidneys to a stranger extended the life of 15-year-old Dani Jones of Columbia.
And the two had never met until Tuesday at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. The operation was scheduled for Wednesday, Veterans Day.
Jones needed a kidney after a lifetime of taking steroids and other drugs had worn out her own. Those medications were needed to treat the aftereffects of myelofibrosis, a rare disease that disrupts the body's ability to develop red blood cells.
Jones underwent a lifesaving bone-marrow transplant at the age of 3 and has been dealing with side effects ever since.
The latest complication came in April, when doctors diagnosed kidney failure. After months of tests to make sure Dani would be a good candidate, she was placed on a transplant list Nov. 2.
Four days later, Jones' family got a phone call from MUSC saying she was a match with an anonymous living donor.
"He's an answer to prayers," said Hattie Wilson, Dani's grandmother.
Donors like Fackey are rare in South Carolina, said Lucia Miles, MUSC's transplant coordinator for living donors. They are called "Good Samaritan" donors because they are giving to a person they have no previous relationship with.
In 2008, 171 people received new kidneys at MUSC, the state's only transplant center. Of those, 36 were from living donors. And only one of those donors was a "Good Samaritan," Miles said.
LOOKING FOR WAYS TO GIVE
Fackey, who is from Hamilton, Ohio, serves as an FA-18 fighter jet mechanic at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. In March 2008, he volunteered to leave his job on the flight line to spend seven months in Iraq.
A fourth-generation Marine, Fackey wanted a taste of combat.
While he "didn't see much action" in Iraq, Fackey spent a lot of time around the Iraqi people. While patrolling the streets, he would see dozens of children begging for candy and attention from the Marines.
Sometimes, they would show scars. Some had missing limbs. He doesn't know if those wounds were caused by the U.S. military or someone else.
He will say little else about that experience.
"After I got back, I started looking for other ways to give," Fackey said.
Fackey isn't sure what made him look into organ donation but he said he is a fan of medical dramas and loves to roam Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, reading about different subjects.
He called his parents to let them know about his decision. And he researched Marine Corps regulations to make sure he would be allowed to do it. Then he called MUSC and asked to be put on its anonymous living donor list.
Fackey's parents were uneasy with their son's decision.
"I said, 'Ryan, I don't know about this,'" said his mother, Brenda Fackey, who flew in from Ohio for the surgery. "He said, 'I can give one away and save someone's life. And I only need one to live.'"
Brenda Fackey said she wasn't surprised by her son's decision because he always has been a generous soul.
Just this year, she mentioned during a phone call that her washing machine had broken. Ryan Fackey volunteered to buy her a new one.
"I said, 'Ryan, I can buy my own washer. And the next thing I know there's a knock on the door and Lowe's is delivering a new washing machine."
Ryan Fackey specified that the recipient of his kidney should be someone between 8 and 18. Otherwise, he didn't want to know anything about them.
Then Dani Jones and her family said they wanted to meet the donor.
STRONG, BLESSED ANGEL
The list of medical problems Dani has dealt with over the years is extensive: kidney failure, two leg surgeries, diabetes, cataract surgery, growth deficiency and seizures. Doctors expect the transplant to give her a normal life expectancy and to cure her diabetes, said her mother, Paula Wilson.
She said she couldn't believe Dani and Fackey were a perfect match. "It's amazing," Wilson said.
Dani, a Dreher High School sophomore, plans to go to college and maybe open her own nail salon.
Over the years, Dani has been the source of strength for her family. Her parents - Paula Wilson and Mark Jones - are quick to describe how tough she has been while enduring so much.
Dani's mother has 12 siblings. At the hospital, an ever-present company of aunts, uncles and cousins is nearly impossible for a newcomer to keep up with.
On the morning of her surgery, Dani sent a text message to her aunts and uncles. "I am about to go to MUSC to have my kidney transplant. I just wanted to say I love you and don't let it bother you. ... Pray to Him and enjoy your day. Love, Your Strong Blessed Angel."
GLAD TO BE GIVING
Dani took an instant liking to Ryan Fackey and his mother. She searched for him on the Web sites Facebook and MySpace. She sent text messages to her friends about the cute Marine who was giving her a kidney.
"When they told me how old he was I was like, 'For real?' At least I'm getting a fresh, healthy kidney. I don't have to worry about no disease when I get out. I get a strong Marine."
The night before the surgery, Dani wanted a meal of hot wings. She invited the Fackeys to join her family.
Ryan Fackey is a gregarious man. Almost everyone he meets becomes an instant friend. He is quick with a joke and he high-fives those who laugh with him.
At supper, he was teasingly snapping photos of his mother wearing glasses to read the menu when Dani had a seizure.
During the seizures, Dani gets fidgety and her eyes are unfocused. She falls asleep for a few minutes when they are over.
Fackey grew silent and serious. He turned his head and wiped his eyes. When Dani awoke, he whispered, "That makes me want to do this even more. I'm glad I'm giving my kidney to you."
On Wednesday, instead of lining up at one of several restaurants offering free meals to the military in honor of Veterans Day, Ryan Fackey arrived at MUSC before dawn.
Dani and her family arrived a few minutes later to check in.
Fackey's surgery was first.
As he lay in a hospital bed waiting to be wheeled into the operating room, Dani paid a quick visit.
She hugged Fackey and said, "I really do appreciate this."
After Fackey was taken to surgery shortly after 8 a.m., Dani went to prepare for her own. Brenda Fackey waited in the pre-operating area with Dani, Dani's mother and her aunt, Belinda Edwards of Columbia.
Brenda Fackey helped spread blankets over Dani as Wilson answered questions from doctors about her daughter's medical history.
By 10:30 a.m., Dani was in an operating room next door, and doctors started cutting open the place where her new kidney would go.
Fackey's mother, meanwhile, joined Dani's parents, grandmothers and a half-dozen aunts and uncles in the waiting room. The two families bonded by telling stories about their lives and their children.
By the end of the day, Brenda Fackey said Dani had gained not only a kidney but another mother.
Combined, the two surgeries lasted about six hours. Both patients made it through without complications.
The first thing Dani said after waking from anesthesia was, "Where's Ryan?" her mother said.
Likewise, Ryan asked his mother about Dani. He already told Dani he would be watching out for her for the rest of their lives.
"You're under the Ryan Protection Act," he joked. "I know where Columbia is."