Brett Epps, 28, and Alix Cirigliano, 27, had been dating only one month when Epps was rushed to the emergency room in 2014, unknowingly in the midst of severe kidney failure.
The day that should have been spent celebrating Cirigliano’s birthday was interrupted with devastating news: Epps needed a new kidney.
Now – almost two years since they started dating – he has given her a ring, and she has given him a kidney.
The Cornelius couple met three years ago at a Verizon store where they worked. They started dating a year later. “I had to see if I could put up with her first,” Epps said with a grin.
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Their home is often filled with laughter, but it also holds traces of pain. It’s where Cirigliano passed up on meals the nights Epps was too sick to eat. It’s where their cat Romeo and guinea pig Joe Pesci waited when the couple routinely went to the hospital.
It’s where their friends and family gathered to support them as they prepared for surgery, only for it to be rescheduled.
Epps’ ordeal started with swollen ankles and some lightheadedness in October 2014. But for the former wrestling champion in great physical shape, Epps said he would have never thought he had an underlying disease.
“I went in thinking I had a long day walking on my feet, but they said it’s a lot more serious, and that’s when everything changed,” he said. Doctors told him his blood pressure was dangerously high, and that he was in the final stage of a potentially fatal chronic kidney disease.
“My left kidney was completely shot; it was all scar tissue trying to fight the disease without me knowing,” Epps said.
He was diagnosed with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, a rare disease in which the kidneys are unable to separate protein from urine. Doctors said he could have had the disease for years without ever showing symptoms.
“When I was about 12, they found protein in my urine, which they said at the time was a common thing for athletic boys doing sports,” Epps said. “We didn’t check into it, but if we had, they probably would have found it then.”
Epps’ kidneys were so weak, doctors put him on dialysis. For nine hours a night, Epps wore a catheter that he fed through his stomach so the machine could perform the job his kidneys could not.
“I call it a nightmarish roller-coaster ride,” said Kurt Epps, Brett’s father. Kurt Epps, a retired English teacher from New Jersey, said his son was never sick growing up – he was always healthy and active.
“I did this to spread the word about the disease and the circumstances involved,” Kurt Epps said. “It’s been a very humbling process to see how much love and concern is out there.”
It was also used as a resource to find potential kidney donors, a taxing process that can often take years with no guarantees of finding a match. Brett Epps decided to be optimistic. “I just went day by day, saying the right person will come around, the match will happen.”
What Brett Epps didn’t know then was that the right person had been around for over a year.
‘What’s my blood type?’
“At the beginning it was so much to take in and absorb, it didn’t seem real,” Cirigliano said. “You hear these stories of other people, but when it happens to you, it takes you by surprise.”
According to the National Kidney Foundation, about 100,800 people are waiting for a kidney transplant, with the average wait time being more than 3 1/2 years. Though finding a donor is a hurdle, the person must then go through a series of blood, tissue and cross-matching tests before being seriously considered.
Epps said he had eight or nine potential donors – friends, family and strangers – that never made it past the final tests. A former student of his father’s was the first to make it through testing and agreed to donate a kidney. Surgery was scheduled for July 8, 2015. But in the middle of the operation, the donor’s heart stopped. He survived, but the transplant had to be aborted.
It was the closest Epps had been to getting a new kidney. After 10 months of searching, he was back to square one – or so he thought.
“It was toward the beginning that I submitted my paperwork,” Cirigliano said. “But at that point there were already so many people ahead of me in the general testing, it took a while to get to me.”
She wanted to help from the start, but Epps didn’t think it was a good idea. “I’m very protective of the people I care about,” Epps said.
“We had different feelings; I was excited and happy I could help him,” Cirigliano said. “I didn’t even tell him at first.”
Cirigliano also waited to tell her mother, Tammy Monday, until she was well into the process.
“She called me one day and said, ‘Oh, by the way, what’s my blood type?’ ” Monday recalled, laughing about the memory.
Monday said her daughter was committed to help Epps any way she could. Larry Cirigliano, her father, said that helping others has always been a part of her character. When she was 5, her father said, she won Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Do The Right Thing award, a program that recognizes good deeds from local young people.
Cirigliano made it through the tests and was cleared to be her boyfriend’s donor in April. “For me, it was a no-brainer,” Cirigliano said. “When I found out it was a match, it just made sense.”
With Epps on board, the couple began preparing for a June 1 surgery.
‘You’re still gonna ask her, right?’
The day before their surgery at Carolinas Medical Center, Epps was feeling worse than usual. He had a severe spike in his blood pressure and had to be rushed to the emergency room.
His family was in from New Jersey, her family from Staten Island, N.Y. “We got to the room to prep for IV and everything, and my blood pressure was still not good,” Epps said. The couple were told they had to wait four more weeks, and a new date was set for June 29.
Cirigliano didn’t know it, but Epps had planned to pop the question just before they were rolled into the operating rooms on June 1. Though their surgeries were postponed, he was determined to see this plan through. “My mom was like, ‘The surgery isn’t going to happen, but you’re still gonna ask her, right?’ ” Epps said.
Cirigliano was discouraged by the delay, but when she came to his room her disappointment turned to delight when Epps surprised her with the ring. “I had no idea,” she said. “I was so thrown off.”
In the days leading up to the June 29 surgery, Epps said he felt even more confident about the surgery. He and Cirigliano got to the hospital around 5 a.m. that day.
Friends and family said the nearly two-yearlong battle finally came to a close: The operation was successful.
Epps and Cirigliano recovered in hospital rooms across from one another.
They were both released the weekend after their surgery. Though Epps has been adjusting and is recovering well, Cirigliano had a scare Sunday when she had to be readmitted into the hospital with lower-back pain.
Kurt Epps said the doctors wanted to make sure the pain was unrelated to the surgery. After some tests, doctors said her kidney is fine and she was released from the hospital to resume recovering with her fiance.
Monday said the process has been both draining and exhilarating. “I hope this speaks to those that have been on the fence about being a donor. Maybe this will help others come forward to give life as well,” she said.
Now, after almost two years of searching to find a donor, Epps has a life ahead of him with his perfect match.
Cole: 704-358-5357; @kianamcole