April 13, 2016

A gift of life from one Ocracoke islander to another

By Connie Leinbach
The Ocracoke Observer

Fletcher O’Neal was shocked when his work colleague Emilie Burrus Mason offered to donate one of her kidneys so that he could live.

The two islanders underwent transplant surgery March 8 in Norfolk General Hospital, and both are recovering nicely.

They are not related, and other than working together for the NCDOT Ferry Division in the Ocracoke office did not have much contact prior to this momentous decision.

Emilie, 33, was honored at the April 4 Hyde County commissioners monthly meeting.

“I was moved beyond words when I heard about this,” said Hyde County Manager Bill Rich during the meeting. “I wanted a resolution acknowledging Emilie for her courage and love for that other person.”

Emilie teared up as she stood in the Ocracoke School Commons room where Ocracokers participate in the commissioners’ meetings via teleconferencing equipment.

“I didn’t know beforehand that that was going to happen,” she said in an interview along with Fletcher on Friday.  

The two stood together as attendees on both Ocracoke and in the county services building in Swan Quarter, where the meeting was being held, applauded.

But, to Emilie, her gift had nothing to do with receiving public recognition.

“I’m humbled,” she said about the recognition, “but I just did this to help someone out.”

Prior to the surgery, few people on the island even knew it was happening, she said.

“I don’t expect people to understand,” Emilie said. “We weren’t good friends. People thought I was crazy, but I just wanted to help out.”

Emilie, who works at Ocracoke Island Realty, had previously worked taking ferry reservations in the Ocracoke ferry office.

Fletcher, 41, who is on disability leave from the N.C. Ferry Division, worked on the ferry boats, and shared about his declining health issues.

Ten years ago, Fletcher, who with his wife Heather has five children, had a heart attack.

“Then they found the diabetes,” he said. “Turns out I’d had that for 20 years.”

Last summer, kidney failure due to the diabetes led to his undergoing dialysis four times a week.

“When all this happened with Fletcher, when he was talking to me about it, I never thought twice about donating a kidney,” Emilie explained.  “It was in the back of my mind to help.”

That’s because three years ago she watched her beloved grandfather, Calvin Dallas Burrus Jr. of Buxton, decline and die from the complications of kidney failure.

“He was my other dad,” she said of her “Pop,” for whom she was the eldest of four grandchildren.  “When I got married, they both walked me down the aisle.”

As Fletcher related his health issues, Emilie recognized similarities to what her grandfather went through at age 81.

“When Pop started dialysis, it didn’t make him feel better; he went downhill,” she said, and in October of 2013, he suffered a fatal heart attack.

“It was heartbreaking and terrible for us,” she said. “It was very sad and very hard on all of us.”

So after hearing about Fletcher’s ordeal, she prayed.

“My faith in God played a huge role in this,” she said. “This was something I wanted to do, and I prayed that if God thought I could handle it, He would make it happen.”

Shane Mason, Emilie’s husband, was concerned that she was totally sure with her decision.

“I was, and he said OK and was on board,” she said.

Fletcher and Emilie then underwent an eight-month vetting and testing process prior to surgery—not only a myriad of physical tests for Emilie, but also extensive questioning to make sure she was psychologically ready.

“What if we’d go through all of this and his body rejects it and I’m out a kidney?” she said about the testing.

“I can’t give it back,” Fletcher chimed in.

But Emilie persisted.

“Every single test I did was so perfectly in line,” she continued. “Everything worked out just the way it was supposed to.”

Both have stomach incisions where the operations took place, though on opposites sides. Surgeons took Emilie’s left kidney—standard procedure because the connecting veins are longer—and connected it to Fletcher’s bladder on the right side of his abdomen.  

Emilie’s operation took longer than Fletcher’s and Emilie’s post-op pain was greater.

“The donor goes in with no pain and then gets hit by a Mack truck,” Emilie said about the post-op.

And now Emilie has one less kidney while Fletcher has three.

Emilie’s young kidney immediately began its work making Fletcher feel better.

“I feel a lot different,” he said, although he has to take 22 pills for 15 different medications every day.  While those numbers will gradually be reduced, he will be on anti-rejection medication the rest of his life.

“And I can’t eat sushi or raw oysters,” Fletcher said.  For a native islander who also has a new oyster-farming business called Devil Shoals Oyster Company, that’s a tough order.

Both have a profound new bond.

Now, they visit often while their young children play together and they talk at least twice a day, with Emilie making sure Fletcher is drinking enough fluids, or taking his medications.

“We give each other grief,” Emilie said, and both laughed.

She smiled as she watched her sons, Asher, 1, and Dallas, 3, cavorting with Fletcher’s youngest child, Miranda, 4.

“Our families are all connected now,” she said.

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