While Terry Ranney and Molly Baker Veling knew of each other from growing up in Harbor Springs, they were essentially strangers until Veling responded to Ranney’s social media request for a kidney with a simple and direct answer: “I’d like to help.” (Harbor Light Newspaper photo by Mark Flemming)
In a world where the news cycles most often seem to feed on fear and heartbreak, now more than ever people are wanting to hold tight to advice from Mr. Rogers: "look for the helpers.You will always find people who are helping."
In northern Michigan, it's more true than not, this notion of knowing there are good folks willing to step up for for those in need. And in Harbor Springs, there's a shining example in Molly Baker Veling, who is preparing to donate a kidney to a man who-- though known vaguely via mutual friends and the nature of growing up in the same small town-- was a complete stranger.
Terry Ranney has been on dialysis for three and a half years now, the result of a kidney failing after a rare reaction to a prescription antibiotic. He knew he needed a kidney, and he knew he was running out of options.
"A nurse mentioned she had heard of people putting the request out on social media and having success. I didn't really think anything would come of it, but I also was willing to try anything," he said, shaking his head in disbelief. "I never dreamed someone so selfless would come along and give me a second chance at life."
When Veling saw the post about Ranney needing a kidney pop up on Facebook, she said there was "never a moment of hesitation." She sent a Facebook message to Ranney right away, and for good measure, reached out to one of his relatives, got his phone number, and sent him a text. She called her mom to find out if her blood type would be a match. It was. And this decision didn't happen over an agonizing few weeks or even several days. It happened within an hour.
"I have two kidneys. He needs one kidney. It was simple math," she said.
The statements juxtapose the simplicity and enormity of a gift Veling is giving, and indicate just how little accolades she'd like for doing so.
"I'm a little uncomfortable with the attention, to be honest," she said as she sat behind her desk in the media center at Blackbird Elementary School. "I was taught from a very early age that if you can help someone, you do. I had a gut instinct that I could help Terry."
The Facebook post Veling read simply noted that Ranney, a Special Operations Air Force veteran, "needed help."
"I spent over a quarter of a century protecting this country. I'm forced to ask for help. I have end stage renal failure," Ranney wrote, adding, "...I truly feel bad that I have to ask for help. I am not a person that has asked for help in my entire life."
"I hate asking for help too, and as I was reading Terry's message I immediately understood how difficult it must have been for him to post that request." Veling said. "I knew if it was possible, I wanted to make this happen for him."
Organ donation doesn't work on sheer desire to help, of course. Veling had to travel to Ann Arbor to the University of Michigan hospital, where she spent several days undergoing a barrage of tests to ensure she was a match and healthy enough to give her kidney to Ranney.
"I'm definitely not going in blind," she laughed. "I have about a five pound binder they gave me at U of M from the donor team. The donor and recipient teams are completely separate, so if I didn't know Terry, we'd have no idea what the other person was going through as we prepare for this."
For Veling, in addition to countless blood draws and tests, preparing for the kidney donation also included meeting with a social worker (and will include one visit with a psychologist).
"Most living donors are family members or close friends," she said. "The team at U of M was definitely kind and supportive of what I'm doing, but it was clear this doesn't happen very often."
"You really are a super hero," Ranney said to Veling."I feel like you need a cape."
Veling shook her head, cheeks pink.
"No way. This is just what I wanted to do, not for any other reason but to help you. I failed to look at this from the attention side of things, to be honest. I never even intended to make our journey public, but I started getting texts and emails and decided if this is going to be out there I wanted it to be in my own words. The level of support we've received has been nothing short of incredible."
Veling started a "Go Fund Me" page for Ranney to help with his recovery expenses. To date it has raised more than $6,500 toward a $10,000 goal.
"Our retired middle and high school Spanish teacher donated the other day," she said to Ranney. "And I was in the IGA recently when a woman came up and asked if I was the 'Kidney Lady' and pressed some money into my hand. People in Harbor Springs are so supportive of each other. It's how we were raised and it's really amazing and humbling to experience. This community takes care of its own."
Veling noted countless of offers of help and support have poured in during the last few months. When people learned doctors suggested she lose a little weight to help with her recovery, Veling said Perry Farm Village gave her a free gym membership and local physical therapist, Damon Whitfield, volunteered his services to support her fitness goals.
"I've had students offer to walk my dogs, we've had offers for healthy meals, Ian and Sally Bund have insisted my family stay at their house in Ann Arbor when it comes time for the transplant," she said.
"I am so blown away by the amount of people who want to be involved in some way," Ranney said. "I still can't quite believe it is happening. I've been on dialysis for three and a half years now, which means I basically have all my blood taken out, the 'bad stuff' gets removed and then my blood gets recycled back into my body (a process that takes up 15 hours a week). Right now, I'm restricted to 32-ounces of liquid a day. You have no idea how dry a person feels when that's all they can drink. The first thing I'm going to do with my new kidney is drink a gallon of ice water."
"I didn't think about how much time you'd get back by not having to do dialysis, and I didn't know about the liquid restrictions. That's just...wow. I am glad you won't have to go through that anymore," Veling said.
"It's not just the weekly time I'll get back. She's adding 25 years to my life. She's giving me a second chance," Ranney said as he nodded to Veling.
A long pause followed as those words sat between these two Harbor Springs alumni and strangers turned friends. Behind Ranney, the media center's wall depicts a fairy tale mural, complete with all the magical stuff of childhood. The mural seems to reiterate the hope that good always prevails. It's a fitting backdrop for the interview.
Veling, who works as a media specialist at Blackbird, said the students have been beyond amazing in their inquisitiveness and celebration of her plan to donate a kidney.
"A friend's child heard about what was happening and mentioned it in her second grade classroom, and I was asked to answer some questions for the kids. I was blown away by what they asked and how interested they were in this journey. Then, when the kids from Mrs. Jackson's second grade class returned to the library, they said instead of me reading a story to them, they wanted to read a story to me. Mrs. Jackson read from the book 'Sadako and the 1,000 Paper Cranes,' which is the story of a sick child and the cranes she makes for hope, faith, luck and health. Each child in the class made me a paper crane and affixed it to a mobile. And they all made me cards to read when I am recovering. I admit I broke down. It was unlike anything I could have imagined, and it was the one time I really saw that this could be bigger than just Terry and me. If anything else comes out of this, I hope it is that I can set a good example for the kids I'm lucky enough to work with during the school year."
Once Veling clears the last medical tests-- something she said she's expecting will happen within the next few weeks-- the transplant team will schedule surgery, likely early in the fall.
"If people have questions about this experience, I'm always happy to answer them," Veling said. She frequently provides updates via the Go Fund Me page, allowing people a glimpse into the journey of becoming an organ donor...and perhaps more specifically, becoming an organ donor in Harbor Springs.
"I'm not sure we can say enough about how much support we've received. It's shocking, but also, it's so typical for our town," Veling noted.
Ranney agreed. "It really is just part of the makeup of our town."
Or the makeup of the people who choose to call this place home.
"There are so many families who have gone through or are going through heartbreaking and difficult health issues. There are all these people who need help and there's nothing we can do sometimes. This was a situation where I knew I could help. It was just a no-brainer for me," Veling said.
Look for the helpers. You'll find them here.
To donate to the "A Kidney for Terry: Giving Life" fund, visit www.gofundme.com and search either Terry Ranney or Molly Baker Veling.