Some might call it the ultimate case of a gift that keeps on giving, but Virginia Snow says the kidney donated by her brother 40 years ago has been nothing short of a miracle in her life.
Snow basically was looking death in the eye in 1972, with both kidneys close to shutting down and knowing the only thing that would save her would be a transplant. And even if a donor could be found, her life would be prolonged by only about 13 years.
But 40 years later Snow is still here, which she credits to a strong faith in God and especially to an older brother, Claude Cassell — who gave one of his kidneys to her.
“I am a miracle — the Lord has blessed me tremendously,” the great-grandmother said during an interview at her home on City View Drive in Mount Airy.
The fact that her brother would subject himself to what was a risky procedure in the early 1970s by giving up one of his kidneys was an act of love that Snow, now 66, will never stop appreciating.
“If he didn’t do it, I wouldn’t be here,” she said matter-of-factly.
Snow recognizes the fact that some people wouldn’t elect to donate one of their vital organs — even if it meant saving a loved one.
“There are some that are just too afraid to do it,” said the former 30-year employee of Gildan Activewear Inc. (formerly Kentucky Derby Hosiery). “There’s a lot to think about when you’re doing it.”
Yet Snow is just thankful her brother did give the kidney, and shows her appreciation for his unique brand of generosity every year on the anniversary of the successful transplant. For the recent 40-year celebration, she presented her brother, who is 75 and lives in Bassett, Va., with a plaque honoring the occasion.
In other years, she has given him a pocket watch, a study Bible to aid his role as a Sunday school teacher and taken her brother out to eat.
“But he doesn’t ask for anything,” Snow said of her oldest sibling — except that she attend church, which she would do anyway, and come see him.
“I love all my brothers and sisters dearly,” added Snow, who grew up in a large family in Patrick County, Va. “But there’s a special bond between me and him, I think.”
Life Was “Terrible”
Though Virginia Snow says she now feels “so much better it’s unreal,” this wasn’t the case before her transplant in 1972.
“It just kept getting worse and worse,” she said of her condition. “It was terrible.”
She had gotten married at age 16 to Leroy Snow of Mount Airy and moved to Surry County. While growing up, she had always been sick, but the cause was never pinpointed. No one else in her family has kidney problems and her parents, Claude Otis and Geneva Hazel Cassell, were of strong stock and lived into their 80s.
Even today, the reason for Snow’s kidney ailment has never been determined by doctors at Wake Forest Baptist Health, “but they’ve got a book on me down there, I know that.”
After giving birth to the first of her two daughters in 1967, Snow was told she would eventually need a kidney transplant. The memories of the five years that passed until that happened are still vivid in her mind today.
She continually felt sick and could eat only certain foods, with her weight dropping to less than 85 pounds by the time of the surgical procedure.
Snow was having to undergo dialysis — a process by which one’s blood is removed, purified and returned to the body — twice a week for eight hours at a time.
“It just kept getting worse and worse,” she said of her condition. “I was terrible sick.”
Things got so bad, Snow thought her life would soon be over. “I was so sick at times — I just don’t know how to explain it.”
Her options for survival were limited. “That’s something you do have to have,” Snow said of at least one functioning kidney.
“Then I got so bad they had to put me in the hospital,” she continued. “They let me come home on weekends.”
Prayer Guided Decision
In preparation for the transplant, Snow’s brothers and sisters were naturally looked to as donor possibilities, and “the ones that could were tested,” she said.
As it turned out, her brother Claude was the only viable match.
“He prayed a lot about it and all,” Snow said of his decision to help. It was made more difficult by the fact Cassell had a wife and three small daughters of his own to consider, including twins. In the end, he thought donating his kidney was something that needed to be done out of love for his sister.
Meanwhile, fear was filling the mind of Snow, who was scared not only for herself but her children, since in 1972, kidney transplants were still a rarity at the Winston-Salem hospital.
“I had these two little girls that I loved dearly — you think nobody else can raise them,” said the woman then in her 20s.
“I was scared, but I had hope.”
Her medical crisis reached its climax in May 1972 when she was rushed to the Winston-Salem hospital and had her body placed in ice in preparation for the transplant doctors said could not be delayed another day.
Virginia Snow’s ordeal would have a happy ending, though, thanks to the transplant, which has not led to any problems for either her or Cassell since.
And many more years have been tacked onto her life than first predicted, a bonus for a woman who had been reduced to living day by day and was just happy for the chance to be around another 13 years.
“I know my body has aged, but I almost feel like I (am) 40,” said the transplant recipient who appears to be a picture of health.
Medicine is no longer required for her (“I used to have to take real expensive medication”) and Snow has been released from her kidney specialists. Her only requirement now is an annual physical.
“I’ve done so great — I feel so good,” she said.
In addition to her brother’s special gift, Snow credits her husband Leroy with providing much support, especially looking out for their daughters when she was too sick to do so.
“Never Give Up”
The experience Virginia Snow has endured is a testament to perseverance, one from which she hopes others in similar situations can learn.
“You’ve got to be strong, you can’t just give up,” she advised. “To me, there is always hope.”
Snow believes trusting in God helped her maintain that hope even when the future looked bleakest. “I don’t know how to put it in words.”
She also is philosophical about life in general, and how fragile it can be at times. “Live the best you can for each day,” is how Snow says she has come to view her existence, one guided by faith.
And being able to depend on a sibling such as Claude Cassell doesn’t hurt, either.
“He is a great brother,” Snow said.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.