MANSFIELD - For years, Denise Brown carried a deadly secret: polycystic kidney disease, a rare and irreversible condition that runs in her family, and one day would threaten her very life.
"Both my mom and my grandmother died of complications from PKD," said Brown, 54. "So, I knew what I had was a ticking time bomb."
It fell to a selfless act by a family member she hadn't seen in years to assure Brown a healthy future.
With Brown's diagnosis confirmed, doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital warned her in her late 40s that she would one day need dialysis and a kidney transplant. Gradually, the decline in her kidney function became apparent: changes in her skin color and a loss of energy became more than an annoyance.
Then last year, came an unexpected phone call.
"The hospital called and said they were referring me to the transplant clinic," said Brown, brought up short at once by the implications of the call. "I hadn't been prepared for that."
Neither had her family, who started posting her need for a kidney donation on Facebook. It didn't take long for family members to swing into action, including those who volunteered to be tested to see if they could donate one of their own kidneys.
Brown's husband was tested, but was ruled out. However, her cousin Lisa Hetzel, a teacher in Atlanta and a Facebook friend was confirmed to be a possible donor after undergoing extensive tests.
Although the women hadn't seen each other in 35 years, Brown had warm memories of her cousin from when their families used to vacation together as kids. Summers in the South in those days included fishing, cookouts and visits to Opryland that both girls enjoyed.
Reunited for the first time as adults, Brown and her cousin underwent surgery last December at Mass General. Brown had one of her kidneys replaced by Hetzel's donor organ.
The women are planning a reunion next month to mark the anniversary - and a new lease on life for Brown.
Brown was especially fortunate to receive a kidney from a living donor. According to the National Kidney Foundation, live donations often fare better than organs removed from cadavers. But live donors are in short supply, and upwards of 100,000 patients are waiting for transplants at any one time.
Someone who is in good health can donate a kidney to someone they know or to a stranger without fear of major health complications, according to the kidney foundation. One healthy kidney is all most people need.
Potential donors need to be evaluated beforehand to establish their ability to give a kidney. More information about organ donation and links to transplant centers around the country can be found at the kidney foundation website, kidney.org.
Brown said she felt immediate results from her transplant - good enough, so that her doctors had to caution her to take it easy before attempting to return to her usual routine.
"I felt like a million bucks," she said.
Brown, who used to enjoy tennis before her illness, is looking forward to resuming an active life, although she recently had her other original kidney removed because of recurring pain.
The Mansfield woman, who had been a receptionist before her illness, is even looking forward to going back to work.
"People ask me why I would think of going back when I'm so close to retirement," said Brown who is enjoying every day of her renewed vigor. "The answer is simple - because I can."