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Ashley McIntyre had no idea who Danny Robinson was when she heard he was searching for a kidney.
He was the same age as her and had already been through so much. Diagnosed at age 16 with IgA nephropathy, an inflammatory kidney disease, Danny had been in kidney failure since 2012, the same year he lost his father to brain cancer.
The Louisville, Kentucky, electrician was working full time and undergoing four-hour stints of dialysis three nights a week to stay alive while he waited for a transplant.
On January 16, 2014, Ashley overheard her mother telling her grandmother about Danny. The young man and his mother had just been on a Louisville radio talk show sharing their story. None of his family members had been eligible to donate their kidneys, and the anonymous donors who volunteered weren’t compatible.
Ashley immediately felt compassion for this soft-spoken stranger.
The next day was her 25th birthday. She got a hold of Danny’s mom through the radio host and said she couldn’t think of anything she’d rather do for her birthday than give someone the gift of life.
Before she had heard Danny’s story, she was always signed up to donate her organs after her death, but she had never considered being a living organ donor. Danny had Type O blood, meaning he could only be matched with a Type O donor. She knew she had the right blood type. She would need to undergo a series of other blood tests, physical and psychological exams to see if she was eligible to give Danny a kidney.
Ashley and Danny were deemed a perfect match for the transplant.
What are the odds that they would fall in love?
“Never in a million years did I think it would be a perfect match all the way around and end up like this,” Ashley said.
Danny’s mom, Denise Stutzenberger, says even before she met Ashley, she was convinced her son would end up marrying her.
“I told her, ‘You are going to be my daughter-in-law, you just don’t know it yet,’ ” she said. “I don’t know how to explain it. Something in me told me.”
More than 100,000 Americans need a kidney, and fewer than 17,000 people receive one each year, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Less than 6,000 of those come from living donors – and fewer than 200 living donors are like Ashley, with no connection or relation to the person in need.
Ashley didn’t want to meet Danny or his family until she found out it was a go.
“She was so scared that she was going to let us down. All I wanted to do was hug her. She was our angel,” Danny’s mom said.
The two families grew close in the months leading up to the transplant on April 17 at the University of Kentucky Albert B. Chandler Hospital in Lexington. The night before their surgeries, Danny gave Ashley a musical jewelry box inscribed with the words, “Ashley, you’re an angel … Danny.” It played “I’ll Be There” by the Jackson Five.
Memorial Day weekend, with the transplant behind them, the couple sensed they had a deeper connection but proceeded cautiously.
“We both agreed we did not want to mess up the relationship between us or our families, because by that time we were connected for life,” she said.
On June 5, Danny asked Ashley to be his girlfriend. They’ve been inseparable ever since and are expecting a girl, Berkli, in June. Danny proposed on Christmas.
Ashley does most of the talking; she’s the one who gives you a sense of their love. Danny isn’t really one to talk about his feelings.
“I guess you can say we just fell in love,” he said. “I told her I wanted to be with her forever.”
Danny will take anti-rejection medication for the rest of his life, but he said he’s healthy now. Ashley’s kidney won’t last forever, however. Whenever it fails, in an estimated 20 to 30 years, “I will be doing whatever I can to help him get a new one,” she said. “I wish I had 50 kidneys to give him.”
Ashley says it’s been a whirlwind romance.
“I feel like my feet haven’t touched the ground,” she said. “It’s just been an incredible, unexpected, serendipitous journey.”