Kidney Sisters

Organ donation crowns a lifelong Illini friendship

Rachel Kesler (left) is recovering from Stage 5 renal failure, thanks to “the gift of a kidney” from lifelong friend and U of I classmate Mandy Leib (right). (Image by Darren Lozia/“The Journal-Courier”)
Organ donation crowns a lifelong Illini friendship

Rachel Kindred Kesler, ’09 BUS, and Mandy Lockman Leib, MS ’09 MEDIA, played together as toddlers and attended grade school, high school and the U of I together. Now they live a block apart in Jacksonville, Ill., and their three-year-old sons are buddies and schoolmates.

So when Kesler went into end-stage (Stage 5) renal disease in January 2021, “I felt very compelled to donate a kidney, as did many of our other friends,” Leib says.

Doctors at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis determined that Leib’s kidney would be compatible with Kesler. “The nurse coordinator said that the amount of tissues we had that connected was incredible, considering we were not related,” Leib says.

Without Leib’s gift of a kidney, Kesler would have faced “dialysis seven days a week for seven to nine hours a day,” Kesler says. “Eventually, this could have turned fatal if it wasn’t for Mandy.”

The transplanted kidney “immediately started working in the operating room, impressing everyone at Barnes with its function,” Kesler says. “We joke about this because Mandy was the MVP of every sports team we’ve ever played on—she’s competitive and the best at everything she does. So her kidney also being the best of the best made perfect sense.”

Leib adds, “We also joke that we are now ‘kidney sisters’ and even share the same DNA now.

“Rachel and I both had amazing experiences at the U of I. Beyond education, we especially loved cheering on the Illini teams and making lifelong friends.”

One of those lifelong Illinois friends, Abby Sturtevant, ’09 MEDIA, spread the news about Leib’s gift and Kesler’s new lease on life.

“I joke that Abby is my press secretary,” Kesler says. “She surprised me with a YouTube video with messages of encouragement from our college friends, along with [those from] Illinois football Head Coach Bret Bielema, basketball Head Coach Brad Underwood, student athletes, deans of our departments, the marching band and the U of I police—it even features the Altgeld Chimes. I cry every time I watch it.”

With recovery underway, Kesler says she looks forward to “spending more time with the people I love, and of course, more trips to Champaign to cheer on the Illini.”

“The world is a better place with Rachel in it,” Leib says. “I know that if the roles had been reversed, Rachel would have been the first in line to try and help me.”

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