Last Christmas, a woman from Wilton, Maine decided to to give the gift of life, and donate her kidney. Beckie Bowering had no idea who would receive her organ.
"Before the surgery, my daughter was concerned," said Bowering. "She said, 'Could you die from the surgery?' I said I could, but if I don't give a kidney, somebody will die."
She was inspired after watching a news story about the demand for kidneys, and lack of donors. She decided to be a non-directed, "altruistic" kidney donor -- offering to have the surgery for anyone who needed it.
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According to doctors at the Maine Transplant Center, altruistic donors are extremely rare: while most donors give to a family member or friend, only about 200 people nationwide give non-directly each year.
Bowering went through a series of tests, and got a phone call in March that a recipient had been selected. She signed up for surgery not knowing who would receive her kidney -- or if they'd ever meet.
Back in December, Bowering said she hoped the recipient would agree to meet with her after the surgery.
"Just to give them a hug, and just see the smile on their face -- that I've extended their life -- that's just an amazing gift," she said.
At the same time Bowering was nervously and excitedly preparing for surgery, 71 year old Anita Perkins of Anson, Maine was feeling the same emotions. Except Anita wanted to know who to thank.
"Only an angel would give up part of their body to someone they don't know," said Perkins.
Three years ago, Perkins was diagnosed with a rare disease called Wegener's Granulomatosis, which causes blood vessel inflammation. Her lungs filled up with blood, and her kidneys shut down.
"Your body attacks itself," Perkins said. At least three times, family members or doctors thought she was going to die. "I was very lucky to survive it."
She was placed on the kidney donor list, but was told how difficult it was to find a match. Her husband and granddaughter both tried to donate to her, but weren't selected.
Perkins accepted that she would have to have dialysis treatments for the rest of her life. For the last year, she had to be hooked up to a machine every night, and change her filtration system every morning.
Just when Perkins was getting used to her new normal, a phone call came out of the blue and changed everything.
"I answered the phone, and they said they had a kidney for me," she said. "I cried. My husband came running in because he didn't know what was wrong. Everyone was so happy to think I could have a new kidney and get back to my old self, maybe."
While there was a chance her body would reject the kidney, doctors told Perkins the outlook was extremely positive. Bowering's kidney was a near-perfect match.
"[My doctor] told me that I had the best match that I could have possibly got, and he said that I would never have to worry about this kidney failing," said Perkins.
For Bowering, surgery lasted about three hours, and recovery was quick. She was back to work in two weeks. Perkin's surgery lasted a bit longer, and required a follow-up procedure. But she says in the weeks that followed, her overall health has completely turned around.
"I am getting much stronger, and I'm feeling a whole lot better," she said. "I'm in a better place, have a better quality of life, and I have Beckie to thank for that."
Because both the donor and recipient wanted to meet each other, doctors let Bowering and Perkins quickly say hello before surgery.
"Anita burst into tears," said Bowering. "It was really great. I think it gave us both a sense of calm."
To both of their surprises, they live in the same part of the state, about 30 miles apart.
The two strangers, connected by one kidney, now share a life long bond. Since surgery in March, their families have met, and spent time together. They plan to celebrate Memorial Day weekend together, and stay in touch.
"I kind of feel like family now," said Bowering.
"She's my earth angel," said Perkins.
Both said they hope their story raises awareness about the need for kidney donations, and shows how easy it can be to save someone's life.