Bonded for life
Sister-to-sister kidney transplant makes life-saving impact
Mia Herndon tucked in her chin, widened her eyes and bared her teeth in an unnerving smile, causing her older sister, Nyah, to cover her face and burst into laughter.
The teenager is known for her many expressive looks, especially while she dances. During a recent interview at their home in Paradise, the sisters recalled an intense hip-hop routine during which Mia put on her bloodthirsty war face, staring down her troupe members.
Their mother, Shasta Hawkins, described Mia as fierce and not one to readily ask for help. “If she feels bad, she’s just going to push through it and not let anybody see it.”
Truth is, Mia developed her war face years ago. It has carried her through three major-organ transplants and a life in and out of the hospital.
When her only functioning kidney started failing a few months ago, it became more obvious that she was struggling, Hawkins said. Her 14-year-old daughter started sleeping for 13 hours a night on the weekends, and Mia’s school performance at Achieve Charter School began to suffer.
This June, Mia’s kidney function was at only 14 percent, and she desperately needed a transplant.
For Nyah, now 19, the answer was simple: She’d give Mia one of her own.
When she was less than a year old, Mia was diagnosed with primary hyperoxaluria, a condition that causes recurrent kidney and bladder stones, and damages the kidneys and other organs, often resulting in end-stage renal disease. She received her first liver and kidney transplant at 15 months.
Her medical journey since then has been rough: When Mia was 2, she contracted a viral infection that attacked her first transplanted kidney. Afterward, any time she became too dehydrated or too ill, her kidney condition worsened.
Dr. Paul Brakeman and his colleagues at UC San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital have helped Mia her entire life, Hawkins said, working to keep her healthy and give her the best life possible.
Looking back, Hawkins recalled a time when her infant daughter was on life support. She and Mia’s father had to decide whether to pursue treatment or let her go—at the time, UCSF had not seen many children with Mia’s condition.
“I said, ‘Is this really something you can fix, or is it … that you just want to study her because it’s so rare?’ And [Dr. Brakeman] reached out his hand, and I put my hand in his hand, and he said, ‘We’ll make her better.’”
While Mia has received excellent care at UCSF, her family has had to clear extensive financial hurdles. Hawkins is a nurse who often must miss work; her husband, Jason, the girls’ stepdad, works for Cal Fire, and between them they have five kids at home. Thankfully, they’ve received overwhelming support from the community, Hawkins said, which has donated more than $15,000 through the Children’s Organ Transplant Association.
Transplant procedures alone range from $100,000 to over $800,000, according to the organization. COTA, an Indiana-based nonprofit, provides fundraising assistance and family support to children and young adults in need of life-saving transplants.
Many factors—including blood type, organ size and age—go into prioritizing patients for transplantation, so waiting times for transplant candidates vary widely. There are currently 18,781 kidney transplant candidates in California, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Organ Procurement & Transplantation Network.
Mia and Nyah have always been close: They have to catch the latest Marvel superhero flick at the theater together, and Mia is still salty about Nyah holding the high score on one song, Fifth Harmony’s “Worth It,” in the video game Just Dance.
They also enjoy just sitting together and reading or drawing.
Nyah decided to donate her kidney to Mia—they’ve affectionately nicknamed it “Leftie”—after she found out around age 12 that they were a genetic match.
Just before the transplant, Mia recalled a moment where she looked at her sister, who was exhausted from squeezing in more hours at her two jobs to save up money, and said, “If you can’t do this, then don’t do it. I’m fine. I can make it through it. I’ve done it before.”
Nyah responded by saying, “Nice try, but I’m still doing it.
“I just told her that she was worth it,” she told the CN&R.
The surgery went so well that after just one month of recovery at UCSF, Mia was able to come home. She’ll still make trips to the hospital once a week for the next month for check-ups, and then every other week as needed.
She’s currently on independent study, returning to the classroom in September as a freshman at Achieve Charter High School, around the same time her middle school will throw a fundraiser dubbed “March for Mia” (see infobox).
Seana O’Shaughnessy, who has been friends with Hawkins since their elementary school days, said the family has a village of supporters that has rallied to help in any way they can: fundraising, organizing events, cooking meals, feeding the family’s chickens, walking the dogs and spending time with the kids.
Hawkins got teary when she talked about all of the support her daughters have received—and given each other.
“My child just saved my other child’s life. There’s no words for that.”