Donna Hoagland wasn’t even supposed to be Troy Volk’s fourth-grade teacher -- she was just filling in while his regular teacher was on maternity leave -- but the two are forever linked, now that she gave a kidney that’s keeping his mother alive.
Hoagland knew enough to ask what was wrong when the young math fanatic was too distracted to answer basic questions in his Florida elementary school class.
His answer sometimes came through tears. His mom was sick. He didn’t know if she was going to get better.
"A lot of days, he looked like the weight of the world was on his shoulders," Hoagland said.
She did what teachers do and asked Troy’s mom Anahita to come in for a conference. But Hoagland was who walked away with homework, researching kidney donations, something she’d considered for a friend.
Volk promised to share some reading material, thinking Volk’s friend was lucky. It turns out, however, that the friend was too sick to be a candidate and unbeknownst to Volk, the teacher had another idea.
Whenever Troy kept asking his mom "What if you don’t get a kidney?" she’d assure him she’d live to see him grow up, go to college, become a CEO and get married. She’s been "sick mommy" for nearly half of Troy’s life.
As much as Volk tried to shield Troy and his younger brother Armaan from her condition, downplay its severity, she couldn’t.
She was hooked up to a dialysis machine every night. She couldn’t cuddle with her boys to watch a movie or for a bedtime story. She couldn’t jump into the pool with them. And in the morning, she’d wake up, retching in the bathroom before school.
"It breaks your heart that you’re the one who is supposed to be taking care of them and they’re the ones taking care of you," Volk said.
Symptoms of her illness began late in her pregnancy with Troy, but doctors weren’t able to identify a cause. She was sluggish, but they brushed it off as anemia.
Her pregnancy with Troy’s brother tipped doctors off to the kidney disease. Her obstetrician told her she should end the pregnancy and predicted she’d never be able to have more children. She and her husband Joseph insisted — after a second opinion from her kidney doctor — that their second son would be born.
By the time Armaan was a year old, she was in the final stages of kidney failure -- and not one of her large extended family members was a match, not even her sister.
Volk is amazed to get a kidney within a few years of her diagnosis, knowing that people have died on a waiting list.
Volk said she was merely joking when she asked Hoagland at a parent-teacher conference last December if she wanted to give her a kidney. The mom sent Hoagland information, thinking she’d use it to research how to donate to her high school friend fighting cancer.
It turns out he is still too sick for a transplant. Hoagland’s kidney was destined for Volk. After spring break, Hoagland told Volk she wanted to be tested as a match.
"I was flabbergasted. I was like ‘No, are you serious?! I was in total disbelief," Volk said.
They were compatible. Volk was at Troy’s boxing club in September when his teacher called her with the good news.
"I just fell to the ground and started crying in the middle of the parking lot," Volk said.
Troy, now 10, was stunned.
"We all went crazy about it. Finding out it was my teacher — shocking. It was shocking. I was blown away," Troy said.
He says he’s looking forward to waging Super Soaker battles and jumping into the pool with his mom again.
Not wanting to disrupt her students’ lives, Hoagland scheduled the surgery for the winter break. Doctors at University of Florida Health’s Shands Hospital in Gainesville removed Hoagland’s kidney and hooked it up in Volk days before Christmas.
The new kidney started working almost immediately, Volk said. She has more energy than ever before and can’t sleep at night if she doesn’t walk at least two miles a day, she said.
Her doctor told her Thursday that her one kidney is working as well as his two. She tells Hoagland "I got your super kidney."
The story was featured on Steve Hartman’s "On the Road" segment for CBS Evening News Jan. 5. Hoagland said she’s happy to have done something to make her 21-year-old daughter and 18-year-old twins proud, but she seems unfazed by the attention.
"Three weeks out of my life to sacrifice, to be a little bit uncomfortable, to help her have a normal, healthy life is nothing to ask," Hoagland said. "She never asked me for my kidney. I just kind of said, ‘Hey, I can give you mine.’"
Volk is blown away by the gift of life and the second chance with her boys that Hoagland has given her.
"The amazing amount of selflessness this woman has is inspiring," she said.