'Kidneyversary': Five years after transplant, life is good

News-DemocratMarch 9, 2014 

Sabrina Voss has gone from sick child to healthy teenager in the past five years, overcoming the kidney disease that once ruled her life.

She takes German and sings in choir at Belleville East. She exercises without feeling exhausted. She goes on family vacations, which never would have been possible during dialysis.

The Vosses eat out every year on March 6, the day of Sabrina's 2009 transplant. They're joined by neighbor Mike Cole, who donated the kidney.

"I call it my kidneyversary," said Sabrina, 15, of Swansea. "It's a way to celebrate that I lived and that I'm still going strong, and it's a way to thank him for giving me a kidney."

Sabrina occasionally gets headaches or hand tremors because of anti-rejection medicine, but the kidney is doing fine.

That reinforces Mike's belief that volunteering to donate was the right thing to do. People are born with two kidneys but need only one.

"I've had no adverse effect whatsoever," said Mike, 60, a retired Air Force colonel who owns and manages commercial property and restores classic cars.

Sabrina is the daughter of Steve and Sharon Voss. She formerly attended Wolf Branch Middle School. Sister Sierra Voss, 18, is a student at University of Oklahoma.

After the transplant, Sabrina quickly grew taller and stronger. Kidney problems were no longer messing with her hormones.

"She went from a size 3 to a size 7 1/2 (shoe) in one summer," said Sharon, 53, a retired sales and marketing specialist. Steve is director of engineering for a chemical company.

In 2011, the Make-A-Wish Foundation granted Sabrina's wish to meet St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, because of the life-threatening illness she had endured.

The foundation put up her family in a Union Station hotel and took them to Busch Stadium in a limousine for a game against Houston.

"He just waltzed in the door (of the clubhouse) and said, 'Hey guys, I'm Yadier Molina,'" Sabrina said. "And I was like, 'Whoa!' I was so nervous, but I gave him a hug."

Life hasn't been all rosy for the Vosses. Shortly after the transplant, doctors diagnosed Sharon with breast cancer. She underwent a double mastectomy and chemotherapy, causing her hair to fall out. She is in remission.

The past five years also have been a mixed bag for Mike. The divorced father of three met a Georgia woman through ChristianMingle.com in 2010.

Now his wife, Christine Cole, 57, had looked him up on the Internet before getting too involved and found news reports about his kidney donation. She was impressed.

"I thought, 'What a great human being,'" she said. "If you can give part of yourself to help someone else to live ... There's not a greater gift."

Less than a year after the wedding, doctors removed a benign tumor from Christine's brain, leaving her deaf in one ear.

Six months later, Mike was diagnosed with melanoma, requiring surgery and a year of chemotherapy.

Both families were struck by the timing of Mike's cancer. If it had been discovered 2 1/2 years earlier, he couldn't have donated a kidney.

"(The chemo) really took a lot out of me," Mike said, noting cancer recovery has been much harder than transplant recovery. "But I'm trying to build back up."

Watching Sharon and Mike suffer from illness has made Sabrina want to pursue a medical career and help people live healthier, happier lives.

Mike and Christine have a blended family of five grown children and five grandchildren. They're proud of him, and they don't mind his corny jokes.

"I wouldn't (donate a kidney) again," he says, laughing. "I tell my kids, 'Take care of the kidneys you've got because I only have one left, and you ain't gettin' it.'"

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