An Unlikely Love Story: One Teacher’s Journey to Find a Kidney

With Valentine’s at its center, February is undoubtedly the month of miracles and love. Barbara Rice’s story may not follow the traditional once-upon-a-time formula, but it is a love story nonetheless. It’s a story so much bigger and more beautiful then just a woman in need of a kidney—it’s a story of a Prince Edward County Middle School teacher and her students, a mother and her children, and a wife and her husband.

Woven through each step of this journey have been tiny glimpses of grace and hope, proving beyond all doubt that when things are at their darkest, love is all you need.

“I believe everything happens for a reason and that something good always comes out of something bad,” says Barbara.

Barbara’s story began with the “bad”, when she and her daughter were involved in a terrifying car accident in front of their own home. While her daughter sustained a concussion and a major laceration, Barbara’s ER visit raised more serious worries.

Bloodwork led to the discovery of nodules in Barbara’s lungs. A Richmond pulmonologist scheduled her for a lung biopsy. For months Barbara had been wracked with a deep cough as well as severe ear and sinus infections resistant to antibiotics. In the months following the accident, the cough and infections worsened.

When the day of the biopsy arrived, she was barely able to make the short walk from the parking lot to the registration area. Within minutes, Barbara found herself in the ICU at Chippenham Hospital.

“In the ICU, my bed was surrounded by a team of ER doctors, nephrologists, and my pulmonologist,” Barbara says. “What was to be an outpatient surgery was now an indefinite hospital stay over an hour away from home.”

She was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease called Wegener’s Granulomatosis. After two more grueling weeks in the hospital with daily dialysis treatments, she was transferred to Johnston-Willis Cancer Hospital for her first round of a low-dose chemotherapy drug. Just days before Christmas, Barbara was able to go home.

The next few weeks were a blur of ER visits, dialysis and chemo treatments and the slow sinking realization that Barbara’s kidneys were not going to recover. Her life had changed forever.

Today Barbara is on the national register for a kidney donor but due to her unusual B+ blood type her wait for a cadaver kidney is anywhere from 5-10 years. A live donor could mean a transplant as soon as next summer.

Barbara has found herself meeting the myriad challenges her diagnosis presented with courage and determination.

“When I got the diagnosis and listened to the doctor explain all the necessary treatments I would have to have to stay alive, I remember thinking ‘How would I have time for all of this?’” Barbara says. “I knew I still had to teach. Teaching is my lifeline.”.

The teaching dilemma, Barbara’s beloved lifeline, was solved in a truly unusual way. A group of students volunteered to set up classroom iPads to enable Barbara to FaceTime with her students on the 2-4 days a week she had to leave class for chemotherapy treatments.

“If it had not been for these three boys, I don’t think I could have continued working,” Barbara says. “I am happy to say three brilliant 12-year-olds saved my career.” Barbara also credits her ability to continue teaching to the instrumental support of administrators at Prince Edward County Middle School and an incredible substitute teacher.

At home, the support and love was just as strong. Both Barbara’s children are students at James Madison University and her husband is a geologist who travels frequently for work.

“I felt like someone had thrown a 1000 piece puzzle into the air and told me I only had minutes to put it all together. I wondered how the puzzle pieces of my life and my family would fit into the world of dialysis and chemotherapy,” Barbara says.

Amazingly enough, it fit together perfectly.

“My husband is my own superhero,” says Barbara. “Without his support, there’s no way I could have taken in-home hemodialysis let alone continued teaching, which meant everything to me. When our wedding vows were put to the test, he stood by my side even when it got tough,” she adds.

When asked to identify a silver lining in the experiences of the last 6 months, Barbara is quick to point out more than a lining, but rather a whole collection of precious, brilliant metals.

“To begin with the car accident probably saved my life since it gave us the diagnosis that seemed to elude my family doctor,” Barbara says. “That diagnosis also reinforced how much I love teaching and gave me a different lens of seeing how much my students mean to me and how important the role of a teacher is in their lives,” she adds.

“I have a wonderful and supportive husband and children who are why I do what I do every day. They are my heart and soul and are probably why I am so good at my job,” says Barbara. “I am blessed with sisters and friends who have offered one of the greatest sacrifices just to extend my own life,” she adds.

While her husband and friends and family members have been vocal about Barbara’s need for a kidney, she herself has remained reticent to make it public. Barbara says she tries not to talk too much about her illness with the faint hope that not talking about it will make the nightmare go away. But she realizes the time for silence has passed.

“I know now if I am to find a kidney—particularly now that my sisters are not matches—I need to seek the help of our great little community.”

This dedicated teacher, loving mother and devoted wife is stepping forward to seek the help of the community. This is what she needs:

  • Anyone interested in being tested should contact Anita Sites, UVA Lead Living Donor Transplant Coordinator, at 434-243-2624 .There are several levels of testing for possible donors starting with Q&A, then urinalysis to test kidney function, and then blood work.
  • For anyone interested in donating, there are NO expenses. Barbara’s insurance covers the procedure entirely, including all testing. There is, however, a time commitment following the donation to allow the donor’s body to heal.

And so we have the as-yet unfinished and unlikely love story of Barbara’s search for a kidney. A love story because love is at the center of everything that Barbara does and has been at the center for each of the hundreds of people that have cared for her and supported her through the process. A love story because the truest love involves sacrifice, commitment and devotion. And finally a love story because Barbara has an unshakable belief that love—her family’s, her friends’ and the community’s—will save the day and change the world.

What will your role be in this epic tale? The answer is up to you.

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