Tracy Briggs, Published July 29 2012
July's Beautiful Woman: Two-time organ recipient Kristi Fabre looks at life with the beauty of optimism
It’s hot and muggy. But the thick air isn’t what stands out most. It’s the blinding brightness of it all: The golden wheat, the blazing sun and Kristi’s broad smile.
This woman, nicknamed “Smiley” by an uncle, has a “what-the-heck” attitude that serves her well as a daughter, sister, aunt, wife, nurse and organ-donation recipient. Her strength, advocacy and infectious optimism make her the Beautiful Woman of July.
As Kristi gives a tour of her home, it’s hard not to notice all of the family photos. Beside the couch are the smiling faces of nieces and nephews, who are obviously the apple of Aunt Kristi’s eye. There are also photos of Ryan Fabre, the high school sweetheart she married four years ago.
“We’re best friends. We have a lot of fun together,” she says.
You get the sense that fun and family are a big part of her life and the driving forces in getting for this 28-year-old registered nurse through some rough times.
It began in the summer of 1990, when Kristi was 6 years old and soon to start first grade. Her mother, Nancy Nelson, says Kristi was suffering from flu-like symptoms and a low-grade fever. Doctors told Nancy it was just the flu. But a couple of days later when Kristi was still lethargic and dehydrated Nelson decided it was time to take her to the emergency room.
“We spent hours in the ER – finally they came back with the Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome diagnosis. Kristi was in kidney failure,” Nelson says.
Nelson says the disease was brought on by E-coli poisoning. They were never able to determine how or where Kristi contracted the bacteria, but it was serious. She spent almost two months recovering in the hospital.
Nelson says through it all, Kristi was incredibly brave.
“I really only saw her cry once – when a port in her neck had to be removed,” Nelson said. “She even sent me out of the PICU when a new procedure was going to be done. I found out later she didn’t want her mom to cry anymore so she wanted me to not have to watch. She even sent us home from the hospital at night – telling us she could sleep there by herself.”
When Kristi was discharged from the hospital, doctors required her to go to dialysis twice a week for six months. But even as a very little girl, Kristi doesn’t feel like the illness slowed her down much.
“I guess you could say I was a healthy sick,” she says.
After a few months, doctors said Kristi’s kidney function was strong enough to stop dialysis. They carefully monitored her for the next three years and everything was fine.
But by the summer of 1993, Kristi’s blood pressure was up and her kidney function was declining. It was time to talk transplant.
Family was the first option, and even though doctors initially advised him not to, Kristi’s dad Kevin decided he would donate his kidney to his little girl.
The surgery was a success. Kristi’s body took to the new kidney, and she continued living a pretty normal Minnesota childhood. She loved the lake, hanging out with friends, and taking part in gymnastics, dance, and even state softball.
A few years later, at age 15, she met Ryan through friends. The high school sweethearts married on the 14th anniversary of her kidney transplant.
They set up home close to both sets of parents, and Ryan began farming with Kristi’s dad – a pretty tight-knit bunch.
“It’s like Christmas every day around here. We’re never lonely because our family is always around,” Kristi says with a laugh.
Everything was great. Kristi had a new husband and a good job as an orthopedic nurse at Sanford. She was required to get checkups at the Mayo Clinic every year, but they were normally “no big deal.”
Until last year.
Even though she was feeling fine, doctors found Kristi’s kidney function was declining again. The kidney her father had donated had lasted a good 18 years, but was wearing out – typical for donated organs. Doctors told Kristi she would need another transplant.
“I remember calling my mom and just breaking down. I told her our second journey has begun,” says Kristi.
Immediately, the search for a new kidney was on. Obviously, her father was out. Medical complications, pregnancy and non-matching tissue meant the rest of her immediate family was also out. But what she didn’t know was that her husband had sent in a blood sample of his own.
“I was shocked that he would do that. This is a guy that’s never had surgery, never had a broken bone. He just called Mayo on his own and decided to get tested,” says Kristi.
Ryan says he remembers getting the news that he was a match for his wife.
“That was a good day,” says the matter-of-fact farmer.
There really was no decision to make, he says. He would donate his kidney to Kristi.
After surgery both Ryan and Kristi say nothing really changed.
“I think he got a better sense of what my life has been like. But we’ve always been the best of friends, and that didn’t change,” she says.
When talking about the transplant the couple waivers between joking that donating a kidney should get him out of helping with the dishes for a while to real emotion from Kristi to Ryan, “Do you even understand how much that meant to me?”
Kristi is adjusting to life with her new kidney. She’s required to take 10 pills a day, something the eternal optimist says “isn’t that bad.” She also hopes to have kids someday.
Even though none of this has been easy, it’s been her path to take and has made her who she is today, Kristi says. She credits her time in the hospital as a child to her career choice as a nurse. Whenever she hears about a patient facing a transplant, even if the patient isn’t her own, Kristi goes to visit and tells them what to expect.
She also tells anyone who will listen about organ donation. She literally wears it on her sleeve. She has “gift of life” tattooed on her wrist and organ donation magnets on the fridge. She says one person can save 20 lives, and for those waiting for organs that means the world.
“They need to know that someone out there can make their miracle happen,” she says.
A positive attitude is everything, she says. Instead of asking “Why did this happen to me?,” she has a sense of gratitude that she had two donors right in her own family and didn’t have to spend years on a waiting list. She says what she witnessed as a kid changed her forever and made her see the glass as half-full.
“I remember the girl in the bed next to me had severe burns, and I’d see kids in stocking caps suffering from cancer. That really stuck with me,” Kristi says. “I knew that others had it so much worse than me. I knew I’d be fine and I’d get to see another day.”
That kind of strength still astounds her family. Her sister Erica calls her, “the strongest person I know.”
Kristi just brushes it all off with a big, broad smile. “You know I just take it all one day at a time. Life’s too short not to be happy!”
Congratulations to the other nominees:
Lindsay Onufrock Erhardt and Mary Langseth.
To read more about all of our nominees, watch video of their stories, or to nominate your own Beautiful Woman, go to our website at www.beautifulwomenof.areavoices.com
Tracy Briggs is the digital content development director for Forum Communications.