WAAAY BEYOND MUSIC

By CURT HARLER

All ABBA members know we are more than a group of musicians – we are family. Just how deep that love goes was demonstrated last month when, on Tuesday, January 19, Alyssa Rohrbach Ford (Sousaphone 2011) received a lifesaving kidney donation from fellow Blue Band Alum Ashley Waters (Majorette 2010). 

It was, Alyssa says, “an act of true selflessness.”

Editor’s caution: Grab the tissues before you continue reading.

How does a mother in her 30s face 50 more years of life knowing she can never be far from advanced medical care? That she will be absent from her young children three times a week to get dialysis?

Then, a savior. Ashley is pretty matter of fact why she donated her healthy kidney: “We’re a match. Alyssa needed a good kidney. I had one. It was an easy choice.”

Alyssa (left) and Ashley in pre-op, getting ready for surgery.

Alyssa is the wife of Jon Ford, another ABBA alum. He knew Ashley from Blue Band days. All three stayed in touch through Facebook.

Just about a year ago, Alyssa Ford felt run down, anemic. She attributed her fatigue to being the mother of an active two-year-old. Her physician sent her for blood work and discovered her creatinine levels were way above normal. Healthy kidneys filter creatinine and other waste from the blood and pass it as urine.  Alyssa’s kidneys did not work.

“It hit me out of left field,” she says. She has no family history of kidney problems. She went to the emergency room and was admitted. By the time she left the hospital a week later, her situation was critical. The ER cleared up the acute infection which brought on the crisis but her chronic kidney condition would persist. By August 2020, she was at dialysis three days a week, four hours at a shot, to have waste filtered from her blood.

“It stunned me that, without a donation, Alyssa would miss so much of her daughter’s young life,” Ashley says, noting the time Alyssa would have to spend at a medical facility several days a week. “She might not see all of her daughter’s milestones.” 

The story gets worse. Alyssa’s blood type is B-negative. Fewer than two percent of the population is B-neg. When she registered to find a donor match for a possible transplant she was told it could be eight to 10 years before a deceased person with a matching profile turned up in the system.

Desperate at this point, the Fords realized their best hope was to find a living donor. To add a degree of difficulty to the search, Covid-19 was keeping most people at home, away from events where she could talk about her situation and where a match might be found. 

The Fords posted about the quest for a kidney on Facebook. Ashley Waters happened to read the post and agreed to be tested (read more about kidney donations here). She was a direct match, meaning her kidney could go straight to Alyssa. Sometimes, a donor’s kidney goes to someone else and their friend’s kidney is sourced from a third person.

Ashley did not hesitate for a moment. By December the initial screening, in-depth blood work and other tests were complete. The transplant was to be done at Medstar Georgetown in Washington, D.C. Fortunately, Ashley lives nearby in Frederick, MD. What a commitment!

“As a mother, I couldn’t imagine being away from my son for that long, week after week,” Ashley says. The operation went well. Ashley’s kidney was removed arthroscopically. Her remaining kidney will grow a bit to adjust for its solo act. Otherwise, there should be no lasting effects. She was in the hospital overnight and off pain medications in five days. Ashley’s employer was flexible about giving time off. 

For her part, Alyssa now has a sizable scar as a souvenir of the operation. And a working kidney. No more dialysis. More hugs and games on the carpet. 

“Ashley deserves the world for saving my life and I am hoping the organization we were both a part of can recognize that,” Alyssa says. The ABBA Board will discuss Alyssa’s suggestion at the next board meeting.

Jon and Ashley are the same Penn State graduating class, Alyssa a year later. They knew one another in the Blue Band. It was typical for Sousaphones and majorettes to travel to away games on the same bus. While they remained friends after their Blue Band trips, they had separate lives until, with a cymbal crash, their lives collided again.


Ashley (34 jersey), Jon (fuzzy hat guy), and friends at one of the many away game trips they made when they weren’t performing at Beaver Stadium (friends also Band alum: one Sousaphone, two trumpets, one majorette, one piccolo, and one mellophone).

Today, Alyssa is doing well. “Every day gets a little better,” she says. While she will be on immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of her life and will have to be careful around crowds, she hopes to find a light-weight plastic Sousaphone and get back with her ABBA friends at Homecoming or an annual Knoebels Amusement Park gig. It will be a while before she can lift a Sousaphone again…but she still can buzz her mouthpiece and prepare for a good future.

All because Ashley went way beyond music.

“Ashley is my hero,” Alyssa concludes.

 

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