For the 21-year-old collegiate athlete, a walk upstairs seemed too much.
Out of breath each time she got to the second level of her family’s two-floor Oaklyn home during the winter holiday break, Krystal Valianti sensed something amiss.
Sure, she’d always felt a little tired. Naps throughout the day were normal. Exhaustion after lacrosse practice had lingered in the past.
The gut reactions from those around her seemed apt. Maybe she was lazy. Valianti never stood as a model of emphatic participation off the field. Relaxed and calm, she’d go with the flow.
“If I told her sister to run five miles, she’d run 10,” her mother Dot Valianti says. “If I told Krystal to do it, she’d run one and say she ran five.”
However, her mother knew the shortness of breath didn’t make sense. Never one to volunteer for doctor’s appointments, Krystal begrudgingly went in mid-January at her mother’s behest.
“We were all scared, freaked out,” Krystal says of her tight-knit family. “We didn’t know what would happen.”
She spent the next six days in Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center, starting on Jan. 22.
Then, the journey for a new kidney began.
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A close donor
Through Facebook, phone calls and everyday chatter, word got out about Krystal’s need.
In Collingswood especially — the community where Dot and husband, Michael, grew up and eventually sent their kids to high school — friends volunteered to help.
Nearly 30 people offered to donate. In a meeting about two weeks after Krystal was first diagnosed with double kidney failure, more than two dozen folks went to Lourdes’ Cherry Hill transplant office.
They needed someone with type A or O blood. A verbal medical exam was given, then blood work.
Soon after, doctors called and told the Valiantis they would look at siblings before any other candidates.
No one was a perfect donor. However, one of the closest to an identical match was Krystal’s older sister, Nicole.
“I said I wanted to continue the testing,” recalls Nicole, a 25-year-old elementary teacher. “After the meeting and blood work, they did an EKG, an echogram, a chest X-ray, cat scan, ultrasound on my kidneys and a skin cancer survey.”
Nicole also needed to take a trip to the psychiatrist’s office to ensure she wasn’t bribed with money or gifts.
The elder sister was put in a database for other donors. If, for some reason, she couldn’t donate to Krystal but could help another person, Krystal would be first in line if the other party had a kidney lined up.
One last blood test, urine sample and a meeting with the surgeon sealed the deal. Nicole would give her sister a kidney.
On April 20, Krystal sat at her school apartment. Nicole video chatted with her at 5:08 p.m.
“She says, ‘Guess what? I’m giving you my kidney,’ ” Krystal remembered. “It was kind of like, ‘Thanks, bye, talk to you later.’ ”
“And then she broadcasted it to the whole world,” Nicole says, rolling her eyes.
The two go tit-for-tat, back and forth. They are very different in many ways but that never mattered in the household.
Thankfully, non-identical personality traits make no difference when it comes to a kidney transplant. At least, not in the Valianti home.
“It didn’t cross my mind she needed a kidney transplant until I found out,” Nicole says. “It was all new. I didn’t know how it worked.”
Dot, a mother of four, weighed the situation.
“When they picked Nicole, I tried to divide myself,” she says. “It’s a Catch-22 situation. It’s hard to have both of them going under.”
On the hot, humid final Monday in May, the Valiantis’ home and backyard is filled with family and friends.
A day before Krystal’s transplant, her best friend Ellie O’Neill decides to throw a party. Gifts come in bunches for both the donor and recipient in the hours before the early Tuesday morning trip to Lourdes in Camden.
“I’ll sleep like a baby afterward,” Krystal says on Memorial Day.
Nancy O’Neill, a close family friend who coaches both girls’ basketball and lacrosse at Collingswood High School quickly responds: “No one else in Collingswood will.”
The two sisters sit at the kitchen table, surrounded by anyone who wants in on the conversation. Time dwindles before the scheduled procedure. Both seem at ease.
“It’s weird, it means we’re really stuck together,” Nicole jokes.
“It means we’ll be closer than you think,” Krystal says with a laugh.
The next morning, the family embarks on the next step of their grueling journey.
Things don’t go as planned.
The Valiantis arrive at the hospital. Nicole goes in first, as expected. About an hour later, Krystal does too.
But, Nicole’s side of the operation hits a snag. Once doctors open her, they find what appears to be a thumb-sized tumor on her spleen.
Surgeons remove it. The transplant is postponed.
“Everyone was looking at me like I should be very upset and whatnot,” Dot remembers. “I’m thinking, ‘What if Nicole is trying to save Krystal’s life and Krystal may have ended up saving Nicole’s?’
“If it was cancer, they would have removed the spleen and moved from there.”
Nicole goes back to the family home and awaits the test results.
“I was in a lot of pain,” Nicole says of the days after the first attempt. “I was like, ‘I have to go through this again?’ ”
Her results come back negative. Doctors again ask Nicole if she wants to go through with the trasnplant procedure.
The importance looms larger when Krystal travels to another appointment. Soon, the little sister would need to be put on dialysis. There was no other route to travel.
“They asked me if I wanted to proceed,” Nicole recalls. “I says, ‘Yeah, I’ve come this far.’ ”
The new transplant date would be either June 12 or 18. The Valiantis pick the former. They don’t want to risk an extra six days.
“It was getting to the point she’d have to be on dialysis,” Dot says. “She was using only 5 percent of her kidneys.”
On June 12, the two girls go in again for the second shot at the transplant.
This time, there are no problems. Krystal received the kidney without issue and is recovering well. Pain from the 14-staple incision down the front of her torso is mostly gone. She monitors her weight and blood pressure every morning. It’s a routine she’ll likely have to follow for the rest of her life.
They are off Nicole in surgery and Krystal waiting. Say a prayer all goes well pic.twitter.com/JJbvnxgjE4— Colls N. ONeill (@Colls_noneill) June 12, 2015
In late June, Krystal returned to work at Roberts Pool in Collingswood.
However, she’s now relegated to selling passes and working inside. Krystal has to limit unprotected exposure to sunlight to less than 30 minutes because the increased risk of skin cancer is too high.
That’s not the only long-term adjustment Krystal must face. She’ll also need to undergo a second transplant within the next decade or so.
The kidney her sister donated is a complement to her two smaller kidneys. Eventually, they will shrivel so severely that Krystal will need another donated kidney to keep her alive.
But the Valiantis aren’t worried about that yet. They’ve seen the frequent napper have more energy. Krystal can feel the effects of the new organ.
She also feels the help of the Collingswood community during her time of need. The support overwhelmed Krystal and her family.
The day after the transplant, Dot walked outside Lourdes and saw a group of people she knew. They stood in the parking lot, talked and looked at the statue — lit up in green — atop the building.
It honored the donor, Nicole.
Dot soon lost track of time in conversations with old friends and acquaintances she hadn’t seen in years. They had come to support the family and see the statue, a sign of success.
“I’m always a giver, not a receiver,” Dot says. “I’m always like, ‘We’re fine, we’re fine.’ It was overwhelming.”
The community reached out to the Valiantis from the start of the process. Yes, the phone calls and Facebook messages provided support, but so too did the fundraiser O’Neill held during a Collingswood-Audubon girls’ basketball game this season.
On Feb. 20, more than $1,700 was raised to “Knock out Kidney Disease.”
“What stands out to me most is Krystal’s ability to be faced with such a serious illness and not allow it to dampen her spirits or limit what she could do,” O’Neill says. “I think there’s something to be said for that type of bravery and pure happiness. I think if you can learn from that, it’s a pretty good thing to learn.
“The same thing with Nicole. She really stepped up. The whole town, I think everyone was very supportive and impressed.”
Nicole dismisses the praise. The former Rowan University lacrosse player now coaches junior varsity field hockey and lacrosse at Collingswood. She aches to get back to physical activity.
“I don’t like being labeled a hero,” she says.
Dot doesn’t push the title but looks at the whole of her family’s recent journey.
“When things got tough, they stuck together and rallied together,” she says. “As a parent, you always wonder if they’ll do that, if they’ll stick together in times like this. They did.”
Future on the field in doubt
In Rutgers University-Camden’s short history of a women’s lacrosse program — it started six years ago — Krystal has been one of its best performers.
She owns the school record for most points in a game with 11. At 76 career goals, she’s on pace to finish with 100 over her four years. Her sophomore campaign provided the most success, with 42 shots in the net.
For as well as she played in the 2014 season, her 2015 might be more impressive.
Krystal played despite the need for a new kidney. She rarely missed a practice or team meeting.
“It was pretty incredible really,” Scarlet Raptors coach Allie Frengs says. “She was in the hospital the first few days of practice. Her first day out, she came to practice that night before even going home.
“I can’t even imagine having to deal with that much. … It didn’t faze her. I assumed she would not be playing for the season and she called me and told me she thought she’d be able to play in a few weeks. I’m like, ‘Excuse me?’ ”
Krystal’s production wasn’t near that of her sophomore season, something Dot points to as proof Krystal should have redshirted the year.
“Still, it’s good she got go back and play,” Dot admits. “It helped keep her mind off of everything.”
She added to her impressive career stats. At season’s end, she received the William P. Carty Memorial Award as the school’s most courageous athlete.
With one season left, there are several offensive categories that could have Krystal’s name atop the all-time leader list. That is, if she can play.
The kidney procedure certainly changed the outlook. Even in a sport where contact is de-emphasized, the threat of a whack to the side could jeopardize Krystal’s life.
It’s a reality she’d rather not stomach.
“I would be pretty upset if it’s my last year and I couldn’t play,” Krystal quietly fears. “I wouldn’t get my 100 goals. That would be a cool thing. I think it’d be great but I wouldn’t think my life is over if I couldn’t play.
“It would just suck to be on the sidelines watching.”
The trio sits at the kitchen table as the seriousness of Krystal’s comment hangs in heavy silence. Nicole, looks the other way. Dot breaks the dead air.
“I will let you play if you have a guard on,” Dot says softly in her no-nonsense tone.
Her sentiment is appreciated. Even if she has no say in the decision.
Mark Trible; (856) 486-2424; email@example.com