Sisterly bond – Strengthened by kidney donation

They grew up together – four years apart.  When Amber Howard’s kidney failed, it was her younger sister who donated a new one.

Growing up Amber Howard was the adventurous older sister. April Howard was more artsy, said their mom.  They both ran track. April played the violin and was in theater.

Their late father, Gary Howard was in the military so the family made several moves. The girls often hung out with the same friends, many from their church youth group – hosting pizza parties and game nights in the family basement. Some of their best memories were camping trips and family vacations to Colorado, Kentucky and the Michigan’s upper peninsula. In warmer weather they’d pack a lunch and go for a swim. On wintry days they’d enjoy cross-country skiing near the Canadian border.

Amber, four years older than April, sometimes babysat for her younger sister. On one occasion, their mom, Barbara Morgan, remembers coming home to a house filled with “snow.” The sisters decided to rip apart a beanbag chair and every time the furnace kicked on the tiny particles of white stuffing would spew out from the vents.

“She thought I was a brat. A pest. She’s more of a girly girl. She likes to get her nails done and I like to go for a hike,” said April, 41. “We’re very different but we both are foodies and we travel together taking vacations in Florida,” said Amber, 45.

The sisters graduated from high school in Sault Sainte Marie, MI. Amber went on to obtain her nursing degree and works at IU Health Ball Hospital in the psychiatric unit. She has a daughter, 23. April is married and lives in Arizona where she works as a wildlife biologist.

Even though they were separated by nearly 2,000 miles, the sisters remained close at heart.

Barbara Morgan says Amber was born with small kidneys – something she believes was a genetic abnormality – but nothing that ever caused any health issues. A few years ago, during a routine checkup doctors discovered Amber’s creatinine levels were elevated – an indication of impaired kidney function. In July 2016, she was listed for a kidney transplant. Initially her mom and a couple of friends were tested as potential donors. During the testing a mass was discovered on Barbara Morgan’s lung. It was benign but she was no longer qualified as a donor, said Amber.

“We ran into a lot of bumps in the road. Originally my sister couldn’t be a donor because she was diagnosed with high blood pressure,” said Amber. After a few lifestyle changes, April was reevaluated in May of 2018. She was an ideal donor candidate.

On January 31, Amber was in one in operating room under the care of Dr. William C. Goggins and April was in an adjacent operating room under the care of Dr. John A. Powelson. After surgery they were in separate rooms – FaceTime bridged the distance – and when she felt strong enough April made the trip down the hospital halls to see her big sister.

“I was in ICU for six days. I had great care. I can’t say enough about Dr. Goggins,” said Amber. “It can be scary living with one kidney but I wouldn’t hesitate for a minute to be a living donor,” said April. “This is giving my sister a chance to live a healthy life.”

— By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health.
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