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ArcelorMittal steelworker Jason Reyes was on vacation in California last year, visiting his cousin in North Hollywood, when he suddenly got debilitatingly sick.

"My whole body hurt," he said. "I couldn't walk. I couldn't breathe. I could barely lay down."

He had been suffering from kidney disease for eight years and had been fighting to preserve kidney function. His doctor warned him he might need to go on dialysis in another year or two.

When he returned from his vacation, his doctor sent him right to the hospital. They put a catheter in his chest and started dialysis.

"Dialysis is tough. It wears you out. It drains you," he said. "It throws your body chemical balance off. I would go home and sleep afterward. I had no energy. It sucked the life out of me."

Reyes was looking at three days of dialysis every week for the next eight to 10 years. That's how long it typically takes to get a transplant.

His kidneys had failed him. But human kindness hadn't.

Reyes called his boss at the ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor No. 4 Steel Producing facility in the former Inland mill, where he makes slag pots in the steel foundry, to take a leave of absence. Co-worker Heather Szymaszek, who schedules maintenance and electrical work at the mill, overheard the conversation. She hadn't known he was sick.

"She got a hold of me right away to see if it was true," Reyes said. "She said she would be willing to get tested and give her kidney if she's a match. I was in a state of shock. I was very taken aback. It's such a huge gesture and a nice thing."

Szymaszek had a close friend who endured dialysis and knew how draining it was to be hooked up to machines all the time. The friend, who had lupus, died after about a year on dialysis, leaving behind a child she was raising alone. 

She and Reyes had only had a passing acquaintance at their workplace.

"We were work acquaintances," Reyes said. "We'd stop and say hi, maybe talk for a few minutes. But we never hung out outside of work, never crossed each other's paths outside the office."

But Reyes impressed Szymaszek as a very good and generous person, since he mainly came into her office to ask if she could help with one of his volunteer causes, including The People's Turkey Drive he co-founded to help needy families across Northwest Indiana or as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for abused and neglected children.

"He seemed to think I was just saying I would donate my kidney, just to be nice," she said. 

"I had to tell him you don't get to tell me what I choose to do for you."

He was skeptical it would work out. They turned out to have the same blood type, O negative. But they also would need to be matches with tissue and antibodies. He was male, and she was female. They weren't related. Tests would have to show that his body would accept her kidney, and that she would function fine with a single kidney. It seemed like long odds that everything would align.

But they were a match again and again. Tests showed her kidney function was "an overachiever, well above the normal range." Her 22-year-old son asked what if her four kids ever needed a kidney, but doctors reassured her that her family had none of the contributing factors to kidney disease, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

After the initial testing in April, it was a long process that required multiple doctors visits. 

Northwestern Memorial Hospital wouldn't do the transplant because Reyes was overweight and it has strict body mass index standards, so he turned to the University of Illinois Hospital in Chicago, which performs the surgery robotically and in a less invasive way, he said. 

Once he accepted the idea of an acquaintance giving him an organ, Reyes offered Szymaszek a ride to the hospital whenever he had an appointment, so she could get all the required tests as a walk-in patient.

"I didn't want her to waste her gas or pay for parking," he said. "She was already giving me a kidney after all."

Throughout the process, they got better acquainted with each other and each's families, meeting up to talk at T's Pizza in Hobart. They jokingly described his mom as the paparazzi because she took so many photos.

About 20 of their family members gathered in the waiting room before the surgery Dec. 27. The transplant was originally slated for Dec. 22, but Reyes knew Szymaszek loved to host Christmas for her family and didn't want her to spend the holiday languishing in a hospital bed.

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

He thought he had done a great thing by rescheduling for her, only to learn Dec. 27 was her birthday. Still, she wasn't bothered.

"The best birthday gift for me was to be able to give somebody else the gift of life," she said.

United Steelworkers Union Local 1010 President Tom Hargrove called Szymaszek's donation "a wonderful act of human kindness."

Reyes felt better immediately after surgery even with breathing tubes hanging out of his mouth and an IV drip stuck in his arm. As soon as he could, he went to check on Szymaszek in her hospital room after the procedure.

"There's no way to put into words how grateful I am," he said. "She literally saved my life. She gave me my life back. I thought I would never get it back."

He felt good at the hospital even though he was only on a single Tylenol a day for the pain. He since has been walking, moving around and enjoying more quality time with his son, Andrew.

"I get to be there for my son," he said. "When I was on dialysis I was sitting on the couch so drained. Now I'm able to play Xbox and do stuff with him. I'm extra grateful that I only had to deal with the dialysis for less than a year when many put up with that for a lot longer."

More than 120,000 people are waiting on life-saving kidney donations, according to the National Kidney Foundation.

Szymaszek and Reyes said they hoped their story might inspire others to consider donating.

"If someone's interested, they should do the research," he said. "They walk you through everything, go through the pros and cons. You can back out right until they end. There's no pressure. It's a comfortable, relaxed environment."

Reyes' family has repeatedly thanked Szymaszek for saving his life and giving him his life back. He is returning to work for the first time in a year Monday.

"We were work acquaintances," he said. "Now we're family."

Szymaszek described the donation as unbelievable and said she felt it was meant to be.

"I feel the love and gratitude from his family," she said. "They check on me, send me texts and plow my driveway. His mom is taking me to breakfast. I feel like I'm kind of getting an extended family. It's more rewarding than I would have imagined."


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.