Local woman seeks kidney donor, raises awareness

  • Sunshot by Drew Dotson - Shirlena Sturghill-Barnett, 38, is hoping to find a kidney donor and is raising awareness about kidney diseases while she waits.
    Sunshot by Drew Dotson - Shirlena Sturghill-Barnett, 38, is hoping to find a kidney donor and is raising awareness about kidney diseases while she waits.

For three hours, three days a week, Shirlena Sturghill-Barnett is hooked up to a machine that filters the waste in her blood via a port in her neck, the vital job that her kidneys are no longer able to do. This treatment has been keeping Sturghill-Barnett, 38, of Hartwell, alive for the last 10 years. She’s not alone in this struggle.
“I’ve seen people die on dialysis. There’s more young people on it now. When I started, I was the youngest person on it and I was 28 years old. Now I think the youngest person is 17. It’s like it’s getting worse,” Sturghill-Barnett said. “Our clinic is so packed that we have people going to Athens for dialysis.”
Sturghill-Barnett’s journey started with headaches when she was younger. Doctors treated her for migraines, when the problem was high blood pressure. Because she was young, doctors didn’t think that high blood pressure could be the cause. By the time they realized the problem, her kidneys were damaged beyond repair.
She first turned to naturopathic medicine, a medical system that uses natural remedies. She was travelling to  Asbury, N.J., to seek treatment for five to six years.
“I did detoxes and colon cleanses and juice for months,” Sturghill-Barnett said.
With these methods, Sturghill-Barnett was able to stay off dialysis until a gallstone became embedded in her pancreas and she had to go to the hospital. While in the hospital, they put the port in her neck and started her on dialysis. That was in August 2013, two months before her wedding.
“I went through depression because I felt like I was the only person that was going through that at my age. I hear dialysis is for older people. Never for anybody in their twenties,” Sturghill-Barnett said. “But I wasn’t going to let it beat me down. I wanted to be a motivation to people that are going through it. That’s why I started I Love My Kidneys.”
I Love My Kidneys is a nonprofit organization that raises awareness for kidney failure and its causes. It also holds an annual kidney walk in September at Big Oaks Recreation Area to raise money for people battling kidney disease. The organization recently held a motorcycle ride to Augusta to help raise awareness as well.
Sturghill-Barnett has had more than 100 surgeries for her kidneys and complications from her kidneys. Her protein was low and caused her bones, ligaments and tendons to weaken because her kidneys don’t operate properly. In 2017, her legs folded while running to her car, tearing every ligament in her legs, cracking her kneecap and her elbow. Doctors said she wouldn’t be able to walk again.
“I had to learn how to walk. I was in a wheelchair for about a year. It’s been a journey,” Sturghill-Barnett said.
Today she is writing a book and making a documentary to encourage others on the same journey as her. Tony Jones, a former NFL  player and Super Bowl champion who also has battled kidney failure, is in the documentary as well. Jones had a kidney donated to him by his cousin and encouraged Sturghill-Barnett to talk more about her story in hopes of finding a donor for herself. She is currently on three waiting lists. However, the wait for a new kidney is around a decade in Georgia and three years in North Carolina, where she is on a list in Charlotte. Sturghill-Barnett is hopeful for a donor.
Sturghill-Barnett has been on the list since 2013. Initially, she wanted to keep it a secret that she needed a donor, but after she learned a member of her church had donated a kidney, unaware Sturghill-Barnett was in need, she began openly seeking a donor.
With a new kidney, Sturghill-Barnett would be able to stop dialysis and the single kidney could last 30 years or more. She is hopeful for a life after a kidney transplant.
“I think I would travel more,” Sturghill-Barnett said. “I would be more involved with my organization because going to dialysis takes a lot out. I sleep the rest of the day sometimes. I think my life would change for the better.”
Being a kidney donor can save someone’s life with very minimum risks involved, according to KidneyFund.org. The website notes the surgery lasts two to three hours and involves up to three days in the hospital for recovery. The surgery is done laparoscopically, which means “the surgeon makes small cuts on the donor’s stomach, and the kidney is removed through an incision just big enough for it to fit through.” The website says the risk of kidney failure in a donor is no higher than a member of the general population. However, with surgeries of any kind, there are risks involved in the procedure itself.
Anyone wishing to donate a kidney to Sturghill-Barnett can call her at 706-614-5900. They can also call Audrey at the Atrium Health’s Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte at 707-355-3602; or representatives at the Augusta Transplant Center — Kate at 706-721-3773, or Shebby at 706-721-8560.