It wasn’t always obvious how alike Barb and John Sylvester are.
When they met 36 years ago in Wisconsin, Barb was a polished perfectionist finishing nursing school.
John was a long-haired Vietnam War veteran who was drifting from place to place.
But they fell in love, got married and raised two children.
This spring, the couple found out just how compatible they really are.
John, 63, who was diagnosed with a hard-to-treat kidney disease four years ago, needed a kidney transplant. Barb, 55, was a donor match, and she gave him her left kidney April 21.
“I picked a good one,” John, a retired firefighter and paramedic, joked recently at the couple’s North Raleigh home.
It can be tough to find a donor match. When John found out he was sick, the waiting list for a kidney was seven years.
And it’s rare for people who aren’t related to match as closely as the Sylvesters did.
Doctors perform a long list of tests to make sure organ donors are a match for a potential recipient. One test looks at antigens, which don’t have to match but must be complementary.
Barb said two of the six tested antigens were the same.
“I knew we would be compatible, it’s almost natural,” she said. “We’re a perfect match.”
John was diagnosed with membranous nephropathy, a kidney disease that causes blood vessels to thicken. There is no cure and the only long-term treatment for severe cases is a transplant.
John’s health deteriorated last May. He began retaining fluid, and doctors told him dialysis would be the only feasible and immediate treatment while he waited for a kidney.
Family members offered to be tested, to see if they were a donor match, but John declined. They had families to care for.
Then Barb offered, and he agreed. He didn’t figure she would be a match, anyway.
When the tests came back, John hesitated. But he finally agreed to move forward with the transplant.
“How do you give an answer for ‘Why not?’” he said.
The couple’s 29-year-old daughter, Nickie Nielsen, said it was hard to accept that both her parents would go through such an ordeal.
“But my mom is determined, and if this was a chance for my dad to get better, we just had to take it with stride,” she said.
The couple’s surgeries at UNC Hospitals went well. They returned home four days later.
Now, they’re continuing to recover together.
Barb helps her husband manage his demanding medication schedule. John is quick to crack a joke when his wife becomes overcome by emotion.
“(Being a couple) is more than being successful together,” Barb said. “We’re also successful as a team.”
Nielsen said her parents complement each other in a special way.
“They both have the same gentle spirit at the core of who they are,” she said.
For Barb, her decision wasn’t just a medical one. It also was a way to repay John for all the happiness their marriage has brought her.
“How many people are with people you truly love and admire and have the ability to express that love?” Barb said. “It must be a gift from God.”