POWELL, Wyo. — It started with a mouse.
A mouse was drowning in the basin of a toilet, struggling to get his head above the water. Carla Wensky saw the small rodent and didn't hesitate — she rescued him. She then realized that if she couldn't watch this little mouse die, how could she watch her friend die?
Her friend Kelly Eckerdt had a kidney disease, and without a transplant or dialysis, she eventually would die.
Looking back on it, Wensky says the mouse moment was a turning point. That was when she decided to give Eckerdt her kidney.
"I had prayed for a sign. I think that God gives us signs when we ask for them, and we're open to them," Wensky said, noting there has only been one other time when a mouse had made it into her home. "The timing and everything was so perfect."
Eckerdt was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease around eight years ago. Both of her kidneys were failing gradually. When her kidney function declined to 20 percent, she went on a national donor list.
"That's when I started talking to people, telling them, 'It's time. I need a donor . please pray,'" Eckerdt said.
She shared the news with Wensky while they had lunch together at a local park.
"That many years ago, a seed was planted and I thought, 'Well, maybe. Maybe that would be something I'd be willing to do.' But then, you know, life goes on," Wensky said.
Wensky is second cousins with Eckerdt's husband, Roy Eckerdt. The distant cousins became friends shortly after the Eckerdts moved to Powell 10 years ago. The two women would meet for lunch or to play cards, and in recent years, Eckerdt would keep Wensky posted about her health.
In fall 2011, Eckerdt's condition worsened, with her kidney function at just 18 percent.
Wensky began the paperwork and medical testing to start the process of becoming a donor.
She was a perfect match.
"It was a miracle — seriously, a miracle — match," Eckerdt said. "... Carla was the first person that said, 'Yeah, I'll get tested.'"
Blood type is the biggest factor for a transplant, Wensky said. From there, "they try to get you as best a match as possible," she said.
For insurance purposes, only one potential donor was tested at a time.
Once Wensky started the process, "Obviously, we had a good enough match that they didn't have to pursue anyone else," Eckerdt said.
"In the middle of this, my mom passed away," Wensky said. "I remember telling (the medical team) what was going on, and saying that I still wanted to donate, but if it was holding up the process, go ahead and test other people."
Eckerdt assured Wensky along the way that she could change her mind at any point.
"That was a big thing. We didn't want it to affect our friendship. One thing Kelly really stressed was that she didn't want my kidney if I felt pressured or obligated," Wensky said.
"I was not willing to jeopardize a friendship or put somebody in a position to feel guilty," Eckerdt said. "I just wouldn't want that for anyone. It had to be 100 percent the other person's decision."
Wensky and Eckerdt each had their own medical team at the Porter Adventist Hospital in Denver, Colo.
"My team would tell me, 'If you have second thoughts, we'll just tell her you're not a match.' Because you're not if you change your mind," Wensky said. "They told me that, until the moment I went under anesthesia, all I had to do was say, 'I'm not comfortable with this,' or whatever."
For Wensky, it was her first major surgery. She had concerns and questions, but after going to Denver last February for testing and to meet her medical team, "I wasn't as concerned. It just seemed OK."
There were a few times during the process when Eckerdt felt scared.
"But you just move forward. God has it in his hands. For me, it was just one day at a time. It was a process," Eckerdt said.
Both women say the entire experience was faith building.
"It really strengthened my faith in a higher power, through the whole process," Wensky said. "... now I know that, no matter what, my higher power is with me."
When she was diagnosed with a kidney disease that could have been fatal, Eckerdt had no idea what the end result would be. She just had to trust God through it.
Eckerdt said she has learned to recognize when God is moving.
"It's made me more sensitive to that . I realize that God is constantly working and constantly moving and everything that happens is because that's the way he wants it to happen," she said.
The transplant occurred June 29, 2012 in Denver. From the first moment, the kidney started performing at record levels.
"They put the kidney in and it started to work," Eckerdt said. "A lot of times, it takes hours for it to kick in. This was pretty much instant."
Wensky was out of the hospital two days later. Eckerdt stayed in Denver a few weeks longer as doctors monitored her progress.
After months of preparation and years of anticipation for Eckerdt, the transition happened quickly.
"Without the kidney, I would have died, or I would be on dialysis," Eckerdt said. "I have a hard time grasping that. And part of that is because I had the surgery, and then everything was fine."
Wensky said she never felt very sick, just tired.
"The week after I went home, I was irrigating," Wensky said. Her boyfriend, Ben Horton, helped her the first day, but then she managed fine on her own.
Dec. 29 marked six months since the surgery.
Before the surgery and in the months afterward, the community responded with an outpouring of support, prayers and donations for Eckerdt and Wensky. A "Kidney for Kelly" fundraiser last Valentine's Day raised around $20,000 to help with Eckerdt's medical costs and other related expenses not covered by insurance. The National Living Donor Assistance paid for all of Wensky's other expenses — hotel, gas, food.
All of their needs were met.
Returning to life in a small town has meant lots of questions, especially for Eckerdt. She joked she may start wearing a sandwich board sign: "I'm good, and my donor's good. Everything is functioning."
Wensky remained anonymous to the community through most of the process, but in the months after the surgery, she has learned how many people were praying for her and supporting her.
"You're very loved," Eckerdt told Wensky.
"It's overwhelming — in a good way," Wensky said.
Wensky said she wants to encourage others who may be considering organ donation.
"I remember when I woke up (from surgery), being really grateful that I could be used in that way," Wensky said.
Information from: Powell (Wyo.) Tribune, http://www.powelltribune.com