Arbutus mother, daughter celebrate gift of kidney donation one year later

Jamie Conway didn't ask for any presents this Christmas.

The 31-year-old Arbutus resident knows she will never receive a gift better than what her mother, Valerie Eigner, gave her last year.

On Dec. 23, 2010, Eigner, then 59, donated a kidney to her daughter after the lupus she was diagnosed with in 2004 spread to her kidneys.

Before the transplant, Conway had endured dialysis three times a week to combat the disease, which affects 1.5 million Americans, while holding down a full-time job as a graphic designer.

Conway's husband of seven years, Brian, knew his wife's condition was serious, but it wasn't until he brought his wife to her dialysis treatment on Thanksgiving in 2010 that it sank in.

"This thing really doesn't stop," he recalled thinking. "There isn't any holiday. There isn't anything that takes priority over this type of thing."

Eigner's donation brought an end to the dialysis treatments and fatigue that would leave her daughter so drained she couldn't walk from store to store as she shopped the outlets in Lancaster.

Jamie Conway called the medication she will take the rest of her life so her body doesn't reject the new organ "a small price to pay" for returning to a more active lifestyle.

The mother-daughter team returned to the outlets last November, and Eigner's fond memories of the day have nothing to do with the bargains she found.

The day reminded Eigner of the trips they took before Jamie got sick.

"I've always been proud of Jamie," said Eigner, who lives across Council Street from her daughter. "The big accomplishment this year was watching her live life to the fullest and have the energy to do things she wanted to do."

To celebrate their good health and fortune, the pair went to dinner on the anniversary of the transplant.

"After going through this, you realize how lucky you are," Jamie said. "It's really sad that, before being sick, you don't realize how precious life is and how easily it can take a turn."

With the wisdom gained over the past year, Jamie has taken big and small steps to teach others.

For example, both Jamie and her mother have "Donate Life" license plates.

In September, Jamie and a team of 20 solicited donations from friends and family to participate in the lupus walk around Druid Hill in Baltimore.

For Christmas this year, Jamie and Brian reached out to a family facing a similar situation to theirs last year and bought them presents.

"We told our family that we weren't giving gifts to them," Jamie said, noting that she still bought presents for her nieces and nephews. "Giving gifts to family isn't what's important. It's being happy and healthy and being together."

Jamie said many of her family members donated the money they would have spent on gifts for her and Brian to the cause.

Brian and Jamie met their adopted family and dropped off the presents on Dec. 21.

The girl in the family received an MP3 player, doll, clothes, mechanical dog, a nail painting set and some books.

The boy received a basketball, LeBron James shirt, books and a Power Rangers samurai sword.

The father received some Calvin Klein clothes and the mother a set of perfumes.

Conway also included a gift certificate to Friendly's, one of the family's favorite restaurants.

"It's kind of addicting, once you find what they like," Conway said. "Hopefully, it takes their mind off dialysis and brings smiles to their faces."

Conway said she hopes to do something similar next Christmas and help out in other ways throughout the year.

Her husband is on board.

"We're super lucky that we're blessed," he said. "If we can give back in any way, we're going to do it from this point forward."

His wife's improvement signals a return to normalcy and the opportunity to do things they had to put off in the past.

One thing Brian would like to do in 2010 is go on a real vacation with his wife, instead of the day trips her medical situation had limited them to taking.

The destination wouldn't matter, he said.

"Wherever she wanted to go," he said. "She deserves it."

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