By Sara Bondell - December 14, 2022
As the world scrambles to find the perfect holiday gifts for loved ones, nurse practitioner Marlene Grenier can rest easy when it comes to her sister, Robin Williams.
Williams has given her sister a pass — no birthday or Christmas gifts for life — because Grenier gave her a kidney last December.
Williams, a nurse with four young children at the time, was diagnosed with advanced cervical cancer in 1997. A last-chance clinical trial saved her life, but prior radiation to her abdomen resulted in severe kidney damage. She had only one functioning kidney and over time, it continued to decline. She ended up on dialysis and had to quit her job. Once she was eligible for a kidney transplant, her family and friends were tested to see if they were a match.
Grenier was a perfect one.
“Of all our siblings, we are the closest,” said Williams. “Something in me always told me Marlene was going to be my match. I just knew. It makes me cry thinking back to the day she called to tell me.”
The transplant was delayed a year because COVID-19 shut down all elective surgeries. When procedures resumed, Grenier finished her pre-transplant testing and picked the first available date for surgery: Dec. 8, 2021, the day before Williams’ birthday.
“I was absolutely terrified. I am not used to being sick, I am used to being on the other side of things,” said Grenier. “Robin kept saying, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? I won’t be upset if you back out.’”
“I gave her so many options to back out,” said Williams. “This is a big thing to ask of someone. What if she needs a kidney in the future? I didn’t just want her to do it because she felt like she had to. But she never wavered.”
The sisters met at Tampa General Hospital in the early morning of Dec. 8. Surgeons took Grenier back first and removed her kidney, then brought Williams into the operating room. Grenier’s kidney was already functioning inside her sister before she left the operating room, and Williams would no longer need dialysis after leaving the hospital.
Even though they were recovering on different floors, the sisters got to see each other the following day. They both focused on their recoveries, trying to push down the fear that Williams’ body would reject Grenier’s kidney.
Grenier was feeling better after the first week and was able to return to work after seven weeks. Williams’ recovery was longer, but even with a few setbacks, her body hasn’t rejected the kidney.
While Williams thought her sister’s kidney was the gift, the real gift ended up being her return to work at a nursing rehabilitation facility in February.
“I am so grateful,” said Williams. “The other day a patient told me that it looked like I loved my job and I thought she has no idea — to be here and taking care of her instead of the other way around.”
The entire experience has bonded the already-close sisters even tighter together. It’s something Grenier says she would do again in a heartbeat.
“It’s been a great success story and hopefully we will continue to have success and my kidney will allow my sister to continue to live her life,” said Grenier.
It’s a life Williams knows is even more precious than before. She’s no longer tied to a dialysis machine, is back at a job she loves and can travel to see her nine grandchildren.
And while Grenier is off the hook for Christmas gifts, Williams has found a new reason to shower her sister with presents. She sent Grenier a beautiful set of wind chimes for their first “kidney-versary.”
“I feel like I have to continue taking care of myself because I don’t ever want to do anything to harm Marlene’s kidney and ruin this beautiful gift she gave to me.”