Meghan Gallimore still gets emotional when talking about Sept. 7, 2017 – the day her mother was airlifted to Duke University Medical Center. Angelia Gilmore had been in the hospital in Wilmington with flu-like symptoms, but things took a turn for the worse. Watch Meghan's story
“At this point we just knew that her body was turning against itself, and everything running through her body was septic,” Meghan says.
At the time a junior cheerleader and double major (criminal justice and human services) at Wingate, Meghan found the resolve to comfort her brother and two sisters over the phone. When she found out that her mother would need a new kidney, she did more than offer emotional support. She put herself forward as a potential donor, and in early June, Meghan will save her mother’s life.
“I’m excited,” she says. “I definitely feel the love and support and have felt it since my junior year when this all happened. Everyone has been so supportive.”
Support from various members the University family has helped Gallimore achieve the rare feat of earning two degrees at once. On the morning of Saturday, May 11, Gallimore and 427 others will cross the stage to receive their diplomas during Wingate’s 41st baccalaureate Commencement (Wingate granted its first four-year degrees 40 years ago this month). On the preceding evening, those finishing graduate and professional programs will receive their degrees in a separate ceremony.
For about half of Gallimore’s Wingate career, she’s had to balance her studies and cheerleading duties with the emotional strain of her mother’s illness. In the fall of 2017, while doctors tried to find out what was causing Angelia Gallimore’s kidney failure and a number of other symptoms, Meghan divided her time between classes, cheerleading and trips to the hospital in Durham.
Weeks later, Angelia was finally diagnosed with Goodpasture Syndrome, an autoimmune illness that attacks the lungs and kidneys. First discovered by American pathologist Ernest Goodpasture while he was studying the influenza pandemic in 1919, the rare but serious syndrome affects fewer than 200,000 people across the United States. It had so damaged Angelia’s kidneys that she had to go on dialysis.
Meghan vowed to help, and she decided to make it a surprise.
“The moment that I knew she was getting sent to Duke and they told us her kidneys were failing, I wanted to do it,” Meghan says of organ donation. But it would be months before Angelia could be considered for such a procedure. The antibodies that were attacking her organs had to be brought into check. And the recovery was slow. After nearly six months of ups and downs, her name was added to the transplant list, and even then she was initially listed as inactive.
“When she found out she would be on the transplant list, one of her friends made a GoFundMe page, and it had the links to become a donor,” Meghan says. She wasted no time filling out the online application. After a brief phone interview with Duke Medical Center staff in July 2018, she received a package of test tubes and instructions in the mail so that her local doctor could draw blood and ship it to Duke, the first step in a long matching process that Meghan would go through without telling her mom.
‘I’ll give you life, Mom’
“Waiting was hard,” Meghan says. “Through this whole thing, I didn’t want to get too excited, because I didn’t want to get my hopes up, and that’s kind of why I didn’t tell her.” Her father, siblings, grandparents and Wingate cheerleading coach Kelly Sheppard were on the short list of those who knew what she was up to until her final evaluation at Duke was scheduled in September 2018. That’s when she decided to tell the entire cheerleading squad.
“It was two full days of tests, so I knew I would be missing practice,” Meghan says. “At the end of practice, we always do prayer requests, and I said, ‘If you guys will just pray for me, I’m going to Duke tomorrow. I’m going to go see if I can give this kidney to my mom, so I won’t be at practice.’ Everyone was just so supportive, and the love of my team and my coach – that has just been a huge help. I had girls texting me while I was there and asking me when I came back, and everyone was just really thoughtful through it all.”
While Meghan tried her best to schedule trips to Duke for testing in between games and cheer practice, she also juggled her classes and the mental weight of wondering whether she’d be approved as a donor. To top it off, she also worried that her siblings might spill the beans or that a teammate might let it slip during one of several Bulldog tailgates that her mom attended.
“She’s been here several times,” Meghan says. “All 30 of us on the team have kept this a secret, plus their parents, plus my coach, plus my friends at Wingate. It’s been like this huge secret. I don’t know how she didn’t find out but I was so thankful she didn’t.”
Sheppard had mixed feelings about keeping the secret, because she worried that Meghan would be devastated if she didn’t wind up being a match.
“I knew that she wanted this so badly for her mom that she was willing to sacrifice her own kidney,” Sheppard says. “But what if that wasn’t happening for her? So, we had that conversation. I sent her a message, and I said, ‘No matter what happens, your mom is very blessed to have a daughter that would give a kidney. Just the thought of that, even if it doesn’t come to that, just to have a daughter that would say, ‘I’ll give you life, mom.’”
What Sheppard didn’t worry about was whether Wingate would support the Gallimore family as they dealt with Goodpasture’s and its fallout.
“Our team has worn green bracelets around their shoes all season for Meghan’s mom. We’ve sold bracelets. We talked about being an organ donor on our social media accounts,” Sheppard says. “And it’s not just our team that’s been supportive, but the campus community. I got a message on Instagram shortly after we got the bracelets and had posted. One of the football dads said, ‘I’ll buy 50.’ And I just remember, he knew none of us. He didn’t owe us anything. He just was so willing to give his money to support our team and our parents. And I thought that was really rewarding for her and so humbling for our team.”
Meghan can’t say enough about the support. “Wingate as a whole, my professors, everyone around me has been so encouraging and so helpful,” she says. “It has just been amazing.”
During her final battery of tests, including a psychological evaluation, Meghan told her transplant team that her mom didn’t know what she was doing and that she wanted to be the one to tell her if it all worked out.
That privilege wouldn’t come until more than a year after Angelia fell ill.
“I got the call Sept. 25, 2018, that I was approved,” Meghan says. “I busted into tears and called my dad. He was crying on the phone. It was just like a really special moment for us. It had been something we had dreamed of, that she could get this. And it was finally happening.”
Still, Meghan decided to wait until fall break on Oct. 6 to tell her mom.
“I went home and printed out my CT scan, and I pointed to the kidney that they’d be taking, the left one,” she says. “I had an arrow to it and I wrote on the poster, ‘We’re expecting a kidney.’” A jar full of kidney beans was also part of the gift.
“I was completely surprised,” Angelia says. “She had said she had an early birthday present, because it was a few days before my birthday. It was overwhelming. Very overwhelming. I’m very thankful and so proud.”
Meghan also gave her a photo album showing the steps in the donor process and the letter she had received confirming her as a match.
Angelia, who takes dialysis daily at her house, says she wrestled with the thought of taking a kidney from her daughter but also knew that Meghan would be devastated if she decided against it.
“It is so nice to know there is light at the end of the tunnel and to know that Meghan is the perfect match,” she says. “Being the same bloodline, it would be perfect. Why shouldn’t I?”
The Gallimores’ surgery is scheduled for June 10, and Meghan’s coach plans to be there.
“I think she’ll have a bunch of cheerleaders in the lobby waiting for her, and she might not appreciate it when she comes out of surgery,” Sheppard says.
Meghan and Angelia will be at Duke for a while for follow-up appointments. Then they’ll spend the rest of the summer recovering at home. It’s not what Meghan had planned for the summer after graduation, but it will be the culmination of an opportunity that she says has already taught her many lessons.
“I have so much appreciation for people who have been dealing with kidney failure for years and years,” she says. “I never would have considered organ donation if my mom didn’t go through that. Now that I see so many people need kidneys and organs, it’s a great thing, what you can do with your body. You save two people: You give it to the person in need, and you also bump up another person on the list.”
May 2, 2019