Answering the Call to Courage

Connie Bourque Talbott ’83, left, and Amy Woodruff ’83 on the quad. (Photographed by Tom Reese.)

In February, 38 years after they first met at Lakeside Middle School — and three years after they reconnected, decades later, on Facebook — Connie Bourque Talbott ’83 gave one of her kidneys to Amy Woodruff ’83.

October 2015

By Carey Quan Gelernter

Connie Talbott, then Connie Bourque, and Amy Woodruff met in 1977 when both began at Lakeside in 7th grade. Talbott recalls, “We were pretty good friends. We weren’t besties.”

Woodruff was known for her athletic prowess — on the swim team and later as a rower, competing in the world championships after her senior year. “If she wanted something she would go for it,” recalls Corinne Koban Hagen ’83. “Kind of like she is now. Determined, stubborn. A very strong person, for sure.”

She needed that strength from an early age; by 7th grade she had Type 1 diabetes, like her father, who would ultimately die of a massive stroke while hooked up to a dialysis machine.

Talbott was known as “really smart — incredibly smart, and very sweet,” says Hagen. Passionate about science and ceramics, Talbott could often be found in the art studio, sometimes helping those who weren’t as adept, including Margaret Scarborough Filkins ’83, who says, “She was a genuinely supportive, nice person, no airs about her.”

After graduating in 1983 both Talbott and Woodruff attended the University of Washington, where Woodruff majored in French and Talbott in economics and finance. They lost touch.

An expat in Kabul

Woodruff, a consummate “jack-of-all-trades,” as sister Sara Woodruff Elgee describes her, took a series of eclectic jobs, including marketing and events manager for the Museum of Glass and business development manager at allrecipes.com. But in the recession days of 2009, work dried up. So her mind was open when her mother invited her to the Sunset Club to connect with a cousin who runs Parsa, a social service nonprofit that helps orphans and women in Afghanistan.

The cousin, Marnie Gustavson (daughter of onetime Lakeside biology teacher Frank Hartung), was a last-minute speaker replacing bestselling author Greg Mortenson, after irregularities surfaced in his promotion of building schools for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Next thing, Woodruff was on her way to Kabul.

She did a little of everything for Parsa — from writing a newsletter and teaching to cooking and running a Girl Scout troop of Afghan girls — essentially as a volunteer. After a few years she had to take on paying jobs as well, running a guesthouse and doing marketing and business development for an Afghan chain of groceries aimed at Westerners.

Despite the privations, she enjoyed mixing with a lively international band of work-hard, play-hard expatriates — contractors, engineers, private security, business, and nonprofit workers. She met a guy, now her fiancé, who had come with the Croatian military and stayed on as security manager. She joined an elephant polo team.

To worried friends and family, she downplayed the danger: “There aren’t bombs going off all the time. It’s a city that occasionally has an explosion.” Then, too, “a good 50 percent of my friends were security people. I had access to a lot of intelligence information that not everybody had.”

If she wanted something she would go for it. Kind of like she is now. Determined, stubborn. A very strong person, for sure.-CORINNE KOBAN HAGEN ’83 on Amy Woodruff ’83


Still, by June 2013, as violence increased and the expat scene constricted, they were relieved that she would be visiting Seattle. The timing coincided with her 30th Lakeside class reunion.

She had stayed tight with her five closest school friends. They met at least once a year; whenever one of the out-of-towners came to Seattle; and to celebrate milestones — marking their 40th birthdays at a spa weekend in Arizona. She never missed a Lakeside reunion.

A quieter path

Talbott’s ventures, meanwhile, were to different parts of this country. A dog lover since childhood, she traveled to retriever field trials. Each year she volunteered to spend two weeks of “vacation” building homes in various states for Habitat for Humanity.

“I stayed in Seattle, got a job, climbed the career ladder.” That corporate ladder was at health insurance companies; today she evaluates and prices risk at Premera Blue Cross. She was married for a time. She runs dogs and horses on her 5-acre farm in Snohomish County. She drives her own big red tractor to clear fields and move rocks.

Talbott had kept touch only with two close friends and hadn’t gone to any of her reunions. But as the 30th for their class got closer, that big round-number milestone made her pause and look back.

“My mind started thinking of this. About really connecting with people again.” She thought she’d go to the reunion this time and would first reach out through Facebook.

Which is how, through photos, updates, and “likes,” Woodruff and Talbott became good Facebook friends.

Talbott got to hear about Woodruff getting elephant hugs and making goals at the world’s elephant polo championship. Woodruff got to cheer Talbott’s prizes for her chocolate Labrador retriever and aww over her mare’s newborn colt.

The kidney connection

Ironically, the two missed each other at the reunion, but the Facebook friendship continued.

Talbott followed Woodruff’s health travails. She read about the first transplant Woodruff had, in 2006, three years before she left for Afghanistan — a kidney donated by Elgee. She learned that, under assault from the unsanitary conditions in Afghanistan, Woodruff’s immune system could not fight off a chronic gastrointestinal virus she developed, and by late 2013 the kidney stopped doing its job. Woodruff had to leave Kabul and begin dialysis in Seattle — three times a week, four hours each time. And then in spring 2014, Woodruff put the post on Facebook that “pretty much just said, ‘hey, I need a kidney,’” she says. Talbott sent her a note: I’ll do it.

This is a personal challenge to test what I’m made of, and an opportunity to share my good fortune (health) with another.- Connie Talbott '83

Until then, they had communicated only by email, Facebook, and text. “We finally called each other,” Talbott says. “Like it was the most normal thing to be doing. Isn’t that cool?”

“There were good reasons,” says Talbott, of why she offered to donate. For one thing, she’d always done a lot of volunteer work. “For me, volunteering is very important.”

“I’m single, very healthy, I have no children,” she reasoned. “I thought, I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission.”

She regarded Woodruff as “the most amazing woman. I respected and admired what she did, what she was doing with her life. It was very different from mine.”

The Lakeside connection was also important to her because she so valued her Lakeside experience: “It laid a foundation for the rest of my life.” She has always been a donor, of the monetary kind, to the school and a member of the Founders Circle.

And she had personally experienced the value of donation. When her 2-year-old niece had needed a bone-marrow transplant, she and family members were tested but the successful match came from a stranger. The transplant bought months of life. “We were all so grateful.”

Ultimately, as Talbott would explain to friends just before surgery: “This is a personal challenge to test what I’m made of, and an opportunity to share my good fortune (health) with another."

The match

The waiting line for a kidney donation is long, unless a living donor volunteers. Woodruff’s fiancé offered but, as a smoker, didn’t qualify. She heard from two friends living in Chile and one in Georgia.

And then in spring 2014, Woodruff put the post on Facebook that “pretty much just said, ‘hey, I need a kidney,’” she says. Talbott sent her a note: I’ll do it.

Talbott immediately followed through at Virginia Mason, and on July 28, 2014, she started the monthslong process of being tested for suitability and preparing. That Talbott’s brother-in-law had been chief of critical care at VM was a happy coincidence. That her niece is a surgeon who has done kidney transplants in California was another factor that increased her comfort level.

The fact she’d never had children made her an even better donor candidate (in pregnancy, a woman’s body creates antibodies, which can lead to rejection issues). Woodruff’s sister Sara had been a perfect tissue match but she had two children. Talbott and Woodruff were also more similar in height, another boon. Talbott’s kidneys were a little healthier than Sara’s. Doctors would give Woodruff the kidney that was not quite as perfect. The surgeon would describe it later as beautiful. Their blood types matched. Everything was a go.

In December, around Christmas, Woodruff invited her close Lakeside friends to a brunch at the small house she’d bought in Tacoma. She wanted to reintroduce Talbott and tell everyone the news. “That was the first time we saw each other,” Woodruff recalls. “At that point, Connie said, ‘I knew I was going to donate, before you even asked.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, that is so amazing.’”

The Saturday before the February surgery, Woodruff and Talbott went to lunch and had mani-pedis. Woodruff gave Talbott a silver necklace from Tiffany of a kidney-shaped bean, though she felt it such an inadequate expression of inexpressible gratitude.

“I’ll always feel guilty,” says Woodruff. “I don’t know what I can do in return.”

The transplant

The transplant took place Feb. 24. “Most people who are going into surgery are worried, but we were having a great time,” Talbott says. “My sisters were there, hers was there, we were laughing beforehand. It was more like an adventure.”

Afterward, Talbott woke up first. “You have a little cart thing, tubes are hanging on. I’d walk to her room and visit her. Friends from Lakeside would visit everybody. She and I are all doped up. It was like this weird geriatric party. There was a lot of fun on the floor.”

The operations were deemed a success. From across the country and world, Lakesiders followed their story on Facebook, chiming in with cheers, prayers, and congratulations.

Amy Woodruff ’83, left, and Connie Bourque Talbott ’83, right, flanked by surgeons, at Virginia Mason, where the kidney transplant was performed in February. Lakesiders and others followed their story and sent encouraging messages on Facebook.

Filkins, who lives in Yakima, posted: “We are all given opportunities to change the world, but too few have the courage. Thank you for inspiring me — and so many others. May your recovery go as well as the surgery. ”

Talbott’s employer, Premera, paid for additional disability so she could spend six weeks resting to recover. “With two kidneys, each does 50 percent of the work,” Talbott explains. “When one is removed, the remaining kidney now has to grow and eventually take up 80 percent of the load.”

March 24, Woodruff would post on Facebook: “One month with my AMAZING gently used kidney! Constance Talbott, thank you for relieving me from dialysis and giving me my life back.”

The operations were deemed a success. From across the country and world, Lakesiders followed their story on Facebook, chiming in with cheers, prayers, and congratulations.

Life afterward

Living at distant ends of Puget Sound, the friends are mostly back to phoning, texting, and Facebook. If Woodruff’s health permits and she is able to travel overseas again, Talbott hopes to accompany her on a trip, perhaps to the Middle East. For Woodruff, that seems a mighty uneven exchange, given what she’s received. But Talbott doesn’t see it that way.

In fact, when Lakeside magazine reached out to Talbott to tell her story, she agreed mostly because “I want others to know they can and should be able to do this for other people. I am also happy to talk to anyone considering a donation. Most people go ‘eewww.’ But it was one of the best things I’ve ever done.”


Carey Quan Gelernter is a communications associate at Lakeside School. You can reach her at carey.gelernter@lakesideschool.org.

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