Two acquaintances, the gift of a kidney, and life

“Life happens over coffee.” The Starbucks slogan took on new meaning when a Proctor District barista donated a kidney last March to a customer in need.

“Sandie and I really only knew each other over a cup of coffee,” said Annamarie Ausnes, who stops by Starbucks every morning on her way to work as an administrative assistant in the UPS student government offices. Today she sits in her West Tacoma home laughing and talking about her future, thanks to Sandie Andersen, barista turned organ donor and sisterly friend.

Annamarie, now 55, was born with polycystic kidney disease. She’s known about her condition since she was 38, but it dramatically worsened last year. In April of 2007 she was placed on a national kidney transplant list, along with 70,000 others, and got in the line for a five- to seven-year wait. Just before Thanksgiving, a doctor implanted a shunt in her arm in preparation for the dialysis treatments she’d need for four hours every other day to stay alive.

“I thought, this can’t be happening. I have so much to live for. I felt I was losing control of my life,” said Annamarie, who often chatted over the Starbucks counter with Sandie about their grandchildren.

One day Annamarie walked into the coffee shop looking uncharacteristically down. Sandie noticed and asked what was wrong. After some hesitation, Annamarie confided that she needed a kidney transplant but that no one in her family was a blood match. “I’ve been praying for an angel,” Annamarie said.

“I’m going to test,” Sandie said instantly.

That night Sandie discussed her plan with her husband, Jeff, and their daughters. She researched the procedure to make sure she knew the risks involved. Then Annamarie met with Sandie’s family. Sandie smiles when she remembers her daughters telling her, “Annamarie is definitely kidney-worthy.”

With a 50-50 chance of being an O-negative blood match, Sandie underwent three months of rigorous testing at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle. The women cried when Sandie leaned over the Starbucks counter in early December and told Annamarie, “We’re a match!”

“I didn’t even know her phone number to call and tell her. I had to wait until she came in for coffee the next morning,” Sandie said. 

In February, a fundraiser on the UPS campus contributed $15,000 to offset Annamarie’s expenses and lost wages.
Annamarie’s husband of 31 years, John, wrote a poem for Sandie on the eve of the surgery that would save his wife’s life. “You are the face of hope,” he wrote.

The successful five-and-a-half-hour surgery, filmed by a CNN camera crew, showed a surgeon carrying Sandie’s kidney to be placed in Annamarie’s body.

“I’d never thought of doing anything like that before. It felt bigger than me. I have one less kidney, but I have a very full heart,” said Sandie, who returned to her Starbucks job on May 12. Life feels mostly back to normal for the “kidney ladies,” as people call them on their walks along the waterfront.

Annamarie, who will take anti-rejection medication for the rest of her life, will return to her UPS job in August. She looks forward to playing with her granddaughter, Ava, and seeing more of the United States. “Before, I couldn’t count on a future,” she said.

Now it’s looking pretty bright. In October she and Sandie will speak to an audience of 800 at a Donate Life conference in Portland, Ore.The women got calls and mail from all over the world from people thanking them for restoring their faith in humanity’s goodness.

Wanting a break from all the media stress, the two went for a quiet breakfast at the Hob Nob, but “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” reached them there by cell phone with an offer to fly them to Los Angeles for an appearance on the show. They deferred. Next, Sandie heard ABC’s George Stephanopoulos naming her “Person of the Week” on national television.

After the women were interviewed by The New York Times and “The Today Show,” bloggers on news Web sites began offering to test to become organ donors for people in need of transplants.

“People are sick of war and politics,” said Sandie. “Our story is uplifting, and that’s why it touches people. When I talk to groups, my challenge to people is, ‘What are you going to do today?’”

“We’re just two little ladies from Tacoma,” said Annamarie. “But our story shows that there are good people in the world. If our voice can make a difference in others’ lives, that’s the true gift.”
— Sandra Sarr