Connected Heart, Soul – and Kidney

Two twenty-somethings share a living donor journey and tattoos to remember the life-saving adventure.
Two young women with matching tattoos.
Matching tattoos remind Sipple and Francis to always "be more."

From the moment Breanna Sipple saw a Facebook post about a woman in Philadelphia who needed a kidney, she felt a “special connection.”

That connection eventually led both women into the operating room at the Jefferson Nicoletti Kidney Transplant Center on September 12, 2017. When they emerged, Sipple had given Erin Francis one of her kidneys.

“It was the most selfless thing anyone could do for another person,” says Francis, who is quickly recovering from the surgery. “She’s my hero.”

Francis’s chronic kidney disease stemmed from a bout with Henoch-Schönlein purpura, a condition that in rare cases can damage the kidneys, when she was four years old. Last year, the doctor who had cared for her throughout her life told her that the situation was dire and she needed to get on the transplant list right away.

“I remember feeling like my life was slipping away from me,” recalls Francis, a newlywed at the time. “I thought that, at 24, my life was ending.”

Life became a blur of nightly dialysis and waiting for the call that doctors had found a kidney for her. Concerned that an organ wouldn’t be found in time, her husband, Rich, decided to create the Francis Francis Kidney Donor Page on Facebook. Unbeknownst to Rich and Francis, Sipple—a complete stranger to the couple—read the post, and was moved.

“When I saw Erin’s story I was overwhelmed. She was my age! I couldn’t imagine being so sick and in need of an organ to save my life,” says Sipple, a 24-year-old designer from Pine Hill, NJ. “I just felt like I was supposed to do something.”

A lot of people don’t make it past the point of fear, and I wanted to get the message out that it’s okay to be scared—you can still do it.

-Erin Sipple

She immediately started the testing process to determine if she was a good donor candidate, but didn’t contact Francis, not wanting to get her hopes up in case she wasn’t a match. Along the way, Sipple kept a vlog (video log) of her quest to become a donor in order to help people understand how important it is. “A lot of people don’t make it past the point of fear, and I wanted to get the message out that it’s okay to be scared—you can still do it.”

The road to September 12 was an emotional roller coaster for both women. At first, it appeared that Sipple was a match and could be a living donor, however at the end of six months of testing, a small glitch caused Francis’s hospital to reject Sipple for the transplant. That is when a friend told Francis about Sipple’s efforts; she found the vlog—and watched it in amazement.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Francis. “She cared so much, and she didn’t even know me!” A few days later, Francis reached out to Sipple. At the urging of Francis’s mother, who had heard of Jefferson’s reputation for successful kidney transplants, the two decided to continue their journey together at the Jefferson Nicoletti Kidney Transplant Center.

Patients sitting together in a hospital bed.
Francis remembers the feeling of life slipping away from her before Sipple stepped in and became her hero.

“I loved Jefferson from the moment I stepped into the building. The team is so caring—they don’t look at you as a case, they look at you as people,” says Francis. Sipple adds, “At Jefferson we felt cared for; everyone there was interested in our comfort and our well-being.”

After extensive testing, the transplant team said the surgery was a “go.” Then, a week before the scheduled date, doctors determined Francis’s strengthening antibodies increased the risk of rejection. The surgery was postponed until the team and the women could discuss the risk and ways of managing it. A treatment to lower Francis’s antibodies worked, and the operation was rescheduled for the following week.

At the end of the three-hour surgery, Sipple had given Francis a second chance at the life she had always imagined—a life without dialysis, a life in which she could plan a future with her husband.

Today, the two share a forever friendship, a positive outlook on life, a tattoo on their arms that says “Be More,” and a mission: to bring awareness to organ donation and inspire others to get past that “point of fear.”

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