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It was a few days before Valentine's Day 1998. As Aurelia Dawson, then 28, sat in the waiting room of a kidney dialysis center in New York City, far from the lush Caribbean landscape of her native Belize, the last thing on her mind was romance. Born with only one kidney, Aurelia had been diagnosed four years earlier with a potentially fatal kidney condition, end-stage renal failure. Doctors recommended a treatment called peritoneal dialysis. "They said I needed to be near a top-rated dialysis center," she says. Desperately ill and estranged from her husband, Aurelia obtained a visitor's visa and moved in 1995 to New York City, where her mother lived.
Aurelia brought her 1-year-old, Samantha, with her, but her two older children, Sheryl and Stephanie, then 7 and 3, had to stay behind with Aurelia's in-laws. (To accompany her would have been prohibitively complicated and expensive.) "I'll never forget Sheryl in the car on the way to the airport, saying, 'Mommy, Mommy, don't go without us!' It broke my heart," Aurelia says. She assured Sheryl she'd find a way to send for her and Stephanie.
Yet moving to New York did not solve Aurelia's health problems. For three years she supported herself with odd jobs while enduring up to 12 hours a day of being hooked up to a portable dialysis machine. But the treatments not only failed to help, they caused complications. Aurelia developed blood clots in her legs and a separate problem that necessitated the removal of her appendix. Doctors broached the possibility of a kidney transplant, but none of her relatives were young or healthy enough to be a donor.
"One night, after my leg blew up like a balloon because of a blood clot, I called my dad in Belize and told him I couldn't take it anymore," Aurelia says. "But even as the words came out of my mouth, I knew I couldn't give up."
That determination is what brought Aurelia to the dialysis center on that February day. She was scheduled to undergo a treatment called hemodialysis, which meant that instead of having the relative freedom of using a portable device, she would remain hooked up to the center's machine for four hours at a time, three days a week.
As she chatted with the other patients, the dialysis technician, Adrian Alleyne -- tall, striking, with impressive dreadlocks -- strode into the room. "He came straight over to me," Aurelia recalls. "There was an instant connection. We talked, and I mentioned that I was in the process of getting a divorce."
Week after week, Adrian and Aurelia saw each other at the dialysis center, and the attraction kept getting stronger. Eventually, she says, "I made the first move." She wrote Adrian a note asking if he'd meet her at a nearby fountain the following evening.
By this time, it was April and the new treatment was working well enough that Aurelia's leg was no longer swollen. The pair spent the night strolling around the city, exchanging life stories. When they parted just before dawn, Adrian kissed her cheek. "It was such a warm feeling," Aurelia says.
After that the two of them were together constantly. Yet Aurelia's health hung like a shadow over their hopes for a shared future. One night in February 1999, as they were settling into their new apartment in Brooklyn, Adrian took a deep breath. "Rel," he said, using his pet name for her, "I want to see if I can give you one of my kidneys." Aurelia was momentarily speechless.
"No! " she finally sputtered. "You're young and healthy." Adrian, five years her junior, just smiled. His youth and good health were precisely the point. While major surgery always carries some peril, for a healthy person to give away a kidney is not in itself a health risk. The remaining kidney grows and takes over the functions of the missing one.
Still, Aurelia wavered for months, terrified that the surgery could harm Adrian. Eventually he won her over. In June both underwent testing to find out whether her body would accept his kidney. "I'll never forget sitting in that waiting room and hearing a loudspeaker announce a call for Adrian Alleyne," she says. A few tense moments later, he returned, reached for her hand and whispered, "Rel, we're a match."
The surgery took place in July 1999. The nurses came for Adrian first. "We couldn't let go of each other," Aurelia recalls. "We were both petrified that we'd never see each other again."
When Aurelia woke up in the recovery room, her first words were "tell Adrian I love him." But three days passed before the couple, recuperating on separate floors, could see each other. On the fourth day, Adrian was wheeled into Aurelia's room for lunch. Alone at last, they were flooded with relief that each had survived.A Happy, Healthy Ending
In October 2002, with both of them fully recovered and Aurelia completely free of dialysis machines, the couple were married. By this time Aurelia's divorce had become final, and she and Adrian had saved enough money for Sheryl and Stephanie to immigrate to New York.
Since then life has been good for the family. Like all transplant recipients, Aurelia, 34, takes an array of immunosuppressant drugs, but there is no indication that her body will reject Adrian's kidney. Also, thanks to Catholic Charities and the generosity of an anonymous donor, the immigration fees for Aurelia's elder daughters have been paid. In fact the donor, who underwent a kidney transplant herself, was so moved by the couple's struggle that she also set up an education fund for Aurelia's kids. It has already come in handy: Sheryl, 17, began college this fall. The younger girls are doing well in school and all three fondly call Adrian "Daddy." Next up for the family: a visit to Belize, the tropical paradise that Samantha is too young to remember and that Adrian has never seen.
Remembering the day she met Adrian, Aurelia says, "I'd almost lost hope as I sat in that dialysis center bracing myself for the treatments." She pauses, then adds dreamily, "Then in he walked."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, November 2005.