Heather Wesley, a steelworker who handles personnel scheduling at ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor No. 4 Steel Producing in East Chicago, has premonitions when the phone rings that it's Jason Reyes.

"I have twin telepathy. I know when my kidney is about to call me," she said. "We're kidney twins now. He's the annoying brother I'm stuck with for the rest of my life so we can drive each other crazy." 

On Dec. 27 last year, Wesley donated her kidney to Reyes, a colleague and fellow United Steel Worker Local 1010 member she barely knew. The surgery was pushed back from Dec. 22 because he knew how much she loved to host Christmas with her family and didn't want her to be stuck in a hospital bed, not realizing Dec. 27 was her birthday.

She agreed to reschedule but told him, "I'll gladly give up one Christmas for you to have another lifetime of Christmases."

A year after her lifesaving kidney donation, they've gone from being passing acquaintances at work to a tight-knit family. And Reyes has been slowly recuperating and taken some big steps forward in his life despite a few early scares.

"It's definitely exciting to see another holiday," Reyes said. "It puts perspective on things and reminds you of what's more important." 

Reyes has suffered from kidney disease for nearly a decade and was put on dialysis after a debilitating sickness befell him while visiting his family in California in 2017. His kidneys had failed.

He began a three-day-a-week regimen of grueling dialysis treatments. Doctors warned him he likely would be hooked to a catheter for eight to 10 years before he could finally get a transplant.

Wesley learned Reyes was sick when he called in to take a leave of absence from his job making slag pots in the steel foundry at the former Inland Steel mill. She volunteered to get tested to see if her kidney was a match, which he initially thought was a considerate gesture made in passing and nothing more.

But Wesley was serious, having had a close friend with lupus who endured dialysis a year before dying, orphaning a child she was raising alone. She also thought of him as a generous person, knowing him mainly through his volunteerism as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for abused and neglected children and to feed needy families across Northwest Indiana through The People's Turkey Drive he co-founded.

"I would do it again in a heartbeat," she said. "It was a quick recovery that only took six weeks. Here's how I see it: it's just a surgery that took me a few weeks to recover from. It's a lifetime for him. It means everything in the world to see him doing well, living life and not hooked up to those machines."

It was a rough year, especially in the first few months.

His body rejected the new kidney in February and again in June. Doctors at the University of Illinois in Chicago had to do biopsies both times to figure out what was going on and adjust his anti-rejection medications. He's now taking a cocktail of three different drugs to trick his immune system into accepting the foreign object it wants to expel.

Early on, intravenous infusions of anti-rejection drugs left his body feeling out of whack and his right arm swollen and bruised.

"It was scary because you don't know what's happening or why it's happening," he said. "I feared I might end up back on dialysis. I felt like I was walking on thin ice and didn't want to do anything to cause harm to the kidney."

It was a nerve-wracking time for him and his family.

"When I was told my body was rejecting the kidney, it was definitely a sinking feeling," he said.

The repeated surgeries were rough on his body and he has not yet been able to return to work at the steel mill. He's been trying to eat healthily, get exercise and "do everything he can to baby this kidney."

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"The hardest part is trying to be normal and live a normal life," he said. "As time goes on, it gets a little easier."

Doctors have told him the first year is the most critical, when the body is most likely to reject a foreign organ. He will, however, have to remain on the anti-rejection drugs for the rest of his life.

But he's been given a second lease on life, enjoying more time with his son, volunteering at a horse ranch for autistic children in Michigan City and giving his longtime girlfriend Susan Jorden the "something sparkly" she had been asking for.

"We had been dating for a while, quite a while," he said. "She definitely had a huge, huge role in physically and mentally taking care of me after the surgery."

He waited until her family was in town to run the rose booth at the Western Days Festival in Griffith so she could celebrate with her sisters. He brought her a Pandora charm for her Pandora bracelet and told her, "It's you and me forever."

She chuckled it wasn't official until she had something sparkly, and then he surprised her with an engagement ring.

They are now searching for a house and will then start to plan their wedding.

"That's another thing I might not have been able to achieve in life if not for the transplant," he said. "I wouldn't have all this without Heather doing what she did. I constantly think about how grateful I am."

Reyes helps Wesley out when needed, plowing her driveway, fixing her television and helping her string up Christmas lights on her house.

"I can't even put into words how grateful I am," he said. "She literally saved my life. There's no way to show my appreciation. There's nothing I can do to top that."

Reyes and Wesley talk and trade messages on Facebook regularly. She, for instance, shares photos of babies with his face photoshopped on them to congratulate him for every month's "birthday" with her kidney. 

"We're like family now," he said. "We have a brother/sister-type relationship. We're like siblings always joking around with each other."

Even their families have gotten close. Wesley's sister, who had questioned why she was giving a body part to someone who was essentially a stranger, is now Reyes' "besty" and had breakfast with him and his mom. 

The families plan to celebrate the anniversary of the transplant on Dec. 30 at a back room rented at Langel's Pizza in Highland. They will be celebrating her birthday, which is also the anniversary of the kidney transplant and, Wesley says, now essentially his birthday too.

"He'll be 1 year old," she said. "It's exciting, it's his first birthday with the kidney, with a new life. This is a year he hadn't been on dialysis."

They went public with their story earlier this year, but Wesley was hurt by accusations from some that she did it for the publicity. She and Reyes shared their story with the hope of highlighting that people can make life-saving donations to the more than 120,000 people on the kidney waiting list, according to the National Kidney Foundation.

They were amazed when strangers reached out to them on Facebook to say they had volunteered to donate bone marrow and blood, and in one case had even gone on the kidney donor list.

"It was overwhelming how great people were and how it touched so many other people," she said. "If we can save one more life by sharing our story, it was 100 percent worth it. If this story is anything, it's an inspiration to share your spare. You don't need them both. Jason's now able to live his life, spend time with his son, and make an impact on the world."


Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.