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After kidney transplant, Tampa nuns back to serving needy

Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 08:03 PM

For Sister Annie Dougherty, it was a no-brainer. Her friend, Sister Claire LeBoeuf, needed a kidney. And since Dougherty had two healthy ones — we only need one to survive — she responded in an admirable way.

It's been a year since the Franciscan nun gave her kidney to LeBoeuf, who was facing the rigors of thrice-weekly dialysis treatment due to polycystic kidney disease.

I'm happy to report that both nuns are doing just fine. They're back doing what nuns do best — living a life of service, caring for the needy and putting spirituality at the forefront of their lives.

Dougherty has a new job aimed at bolstering the income and purpose of the Franciscan Center, a spiritual retreat on the banks of the Hillsborough River. And LeBoeuf, whose failing health was hampering her from an important mission, is now back at it, as strong and enthused as ever.

She says it would not have been possible without this gift of life.

'We're living God's miracle," the donor says.

As for the recipient, "My gratitude is over the top."

LeBoeuf has reason to feel grateful. According to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, nearly 93,000 people are waiting for a kidney in the United States.

The lucky ones who get a transplant don't come close to that number. From January to March this year, only 3,375 got a new kidney, 1,993 from a deceased donor and 1,382 from a living one. Do the math and you'll see the odds aren't so hot.

For LeBoeuf, 69, all it took was a message sent out to all the friends on her email address book. The longtime children's advocate was in poor health and didn't have much time before dialysis would be required to keep her alive.

"I figure it couldn't hurt to ask," she says.

Twenty people responded. But only Dougherty, 60, a recipient of Hillsborough County's Moral Courage Award for her humanitarian work with people living with HIV/AIDS, was the perfect match.

Any surgery is a risk. Dougherty admits the night before they both went under the knife at Tampa General Hospital, she freaked out just a little bit. The surgeon had given her all the scenarios. Maybe he told her just a little too much.

So she did what nuns do best. She prayed. She put her trust in God that all would work out just fine.

For six weeks, post-operation, it felt like she was "run over by a truck." She also had an uncomfortable allergic reaction to the surgical tape. But after two months, she felt as good as new.

As for LeBoeuf, her new kidney began working perfectly right away. Her incision didn't fare as well. She had to undergo two more surgeries and wear a wound "vac," which promotes healing through negative pressure. It took about five months to heal.

"I would have preferred a quicker recovery, but that was out of my control," she says. "Now it's all behind me."

Her high blood pressure is gone. But she will be taking anti-rejection medicine the rest of her life. Doctors tell her that, God willing, she should have 10 to 12 years of good health from that donated kidney.

What that translates to is more time to focus on a goal that has consumed her life in recent years.

She's the founder of New Life Dwelling Place, a residential program that reunites single mothers with their children who were removed from their custody by the courts, and Everyday Blessings, a residential foster care and adoption agency for hard-to-place children.

Through that work, she identified an area of need and a model program that would meet it. That's when she came up with the idea for New Life Village, an intergenerational housing complex and program for adoptive families and senior citizens to provide support.

For a long time, it was just a pipe dream. Not anymore. After her recovery, a healthier LeBoeuf was able to resume her dogged determination in finishing the race. Now the New Life board of directors is closing on a foreclosed townhouse complex in Palm River. If all goes well, it will own the building come August, and begin renovating the 30 apartments for the future residents.

It will be the first program of its kind in the Tampa area. LeBoeuf and New Life supporters are ramping up efforts to find individuals and corporate supporters to help pay for the estimated $3 million needed to complete the job.

Without that kidney, LeBoeuf says, "I wouldn't have the energy for this. No way."

And for Dougherty, 2012 has brought new challenges as well. She just completed six years at Academy Prep, a private middle school for children from low-income families, where she served as director of graduate support. When the Franciscan Center launched its search for a new director, Dougherty got the nod.

The timing was right. Dougherty began her ministry here in Tampa in 1980 at the center, which is owned by her order, the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany. Now in the second half of her life, she's come back home.

And like LeBoeuf, she has hurdles to overcome. The Franciscan Center has been called one of Tampa's best-kept secrets, something Dougherty says must change. She says it has to be more aggressive in attracting corporations and groups to rent the facility for retreats and business gatherings. But the 42-year-old building, which has 42 single and double rooms, is in serious need of updating.

"New pipes, new plumbing, new toilets, new ceilings, tree trimming," she says. "We've got a lot going for us here, with an incredible executive chef and a beautiful setting. But what we really need are a couple of sugar daddies — or mommies — to give us about $1 million for renovations."

So life goes on for these two women, always in pursuit of making this community a better place to live. They get together monthly, bonded by a friendship that has grown so much stronger.

Being a donor obviously hasn't affected Dougherty's verve and dedication. And being a recipient gave LeBoeuf that second wind to see her vision come to reality.

"Just do it," says Dougherty. That's the message she gives to anyone considering being a living donor. "Be part of a miracle. There's no greater feeling."

Amen, Sister.

mbearden@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7613