Kidney donor 'home' for holiday

When Cpl. Ryan Fackey donated a kidney just because he wanted to make the world a better place, he received something, too.

A second family.

On Friday, the 22-year-old from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort spent his first Christmas away from his family in Ohio. But the girl who received his kidney in November wouldn't let him spend the holiday alone. So, Fackey joined 15-year-old Dani Jones and her large, boisterous family for Christmas in Columbia.

"He'll always have a home here," said Paula Wilson, who is Dani's mother.

Fackey truly was treated like family.

He had a pile of presents under the Christmas tree.

He got hugged by aunts.

And lectured by a grandmother.

And teased by brothers, uncles and cousins.

"I have no doubts about it," Fackey said. "I'm part of this family for life."

Fackey donated his kidney to Dani on Veteran's Day.

Dani's doctors had diagnosed kidney failure last spring and had told her family she would be on dialysis by year's end.

The kidney failure was the result of a blood disease that Dani fought when she was a toddler.

At age 3, Dani underwent a bone marrow transplant to treat myelofibrosis, a rare disease that disrupts the body's ability to develop red blood cells. She has dealt with side effects ever since. Years of taking steroids and other drugs had worn out her kidneys.

Fackey, who is from Hamilton, Ohio, serves as an FA-18 fighter jet mechanic at the Beaufort Marine base. He spent seven months in Iraq in 2008, and his experience in that war-torn country inspired him to give to others once he came home.

As part of that desire to help others, he decided to become a "Good Samaritan" donor, meaning he would give a kidney to a person he had never met. Those kinds of donors are rare in South Carolina, according the Medical University of South Carolina. In 2008, 171 people received new kidneys at the Charleston hospital. Of those, 36 were from living donors and only one was from a Good Samaritan.

Fackey intended to be an anonymous donor. But Dani and her mother asked to meet him.

He agreed.

During the transplant, Wilson worried in the hospital waiting room with Fackey's mother, Brenda Fackey.

The two families have kept in touch since the surgery, trading notes on their children's recovery.

Both are doing well. Fackey said he felt like running two weeks later. Dani has not experienced any signs of rejection.

"I feel good," she said.

Fackey spent more than 40 days in Ohio as he recovered from the surgery. He returned this week to duty in Beaufort.

While he had a few days off for the holiday, there wasn't enough time for a return trip to Ohio.

Fackey arrived in Columbia on Wednesday afternoon just in time for a reception at Central Baptist Church where Wilson and Dani worship.

There, church members showered Fackey with gifts and words of thanks.

"Thank you. Thank you. Thank you," said Emma Carter, a church member. "That's our little angel."

During the reception, Dani brought more than 100 people to tears with her speech to Fackey.

"Ryan, I thought long and hard about what I could say to you today to make you understand how I feel," she said. "I have experienced the miracle of God's blessings on my life many times and I am now counting you as one of those blessings. ...

"You have touched my heart in a way no one else could imagine. Thank you. Continue to let God's light shine through you. You will remain in my heart forever."

Fackey, a gregarious man, was almost speechless when it was his turn at the microphone.

"We've had this discussion before. 'What do you say?'" Fackey said. "It was a pleasure to give you a kidney."

While the church reception was emotional, Fackey, Dani and her family spent most of the holiday celebrating.

On Christmas Eve, Fackey turned 22, so Dani's family bought him a cake and sang during a family gathering. Later, Fackey went out on the town with Dani's older brother and some friends.

On Christmas morning, Ryan opened a pile of presents from Dani and her family. One gift was a Christmas ornament shaped like a pharmaceutical mortar with "You are the best medicine" painted on it.

At a family dinner with more than 20 people crammed inside Dani's grandmother's house in north Columbia, Fackey joked that he was really there to spend Christmas with his other kidney.

"We were having separation anxiety," he said.

Dani laughed at the joke.

Her family dished out their share of teasing, especially when Fackey refused to taste chitterlings.

"He's brave enough to donate a kidney but he's not brave enough to eat a chitlin," said Andrew Wilson, Dani's uncle.

Hattie Wilson, Dani's grandmother, lectured Fackey about safe driving for his return trip to Beaufort Friday night. She had overheard him talking about breaking the speed limit on the trip into town.

"You be careful," she said.

Dani said she enjoyed spending the holiday with Fackey.

"I've had fun with him," she said.

And, Fackey said the day was special to him, too.

"I couldn't have asked for a better Christmas from home," he said.