Sag Harbor Resident Offers Best Friend the Best Gift: Life

Diana Howard and Ethna Sinisi in 1983.

Diana Howard and Ethna Sinisi met in law school in 1982 and have been friends for more than 33 years.

Ms. Sinisi, 61, has been living with, polycystic kidney disease, or PKD, her entire life. The disease makes fluid-filled cysts grow in her kidneys, slowly replacing them and eventually leading to kidney failure.

Diana Howard and Ethna Sinisi in California a few days before the transplant.

For at least the past five years, Ms. Sinisi, who was once a competitive rower and recreational runner, has been extremely weakened by PKD and fatigued after daily activities. Earlier this year, doctors informed her that the wait for a kidney transplant would be seven years.

On Friday morning, however, her best friend, Ms. Howard, 58, who lives in Sag Harbor, had already arrived in San Diego, California, where Ms. Sinisi currently lives, to prepare to donate one of her kidneys.

Ms. Howard said she’s been aware of her friend’s genetic disease for years, and that after being tested she found out that she was a match.

“The first few people who got tested didn’t work out,” Ms. Sinisi said, adding that since Ms. Howard is unrelated, they thought it unlikely that she’d be a match. “We thought she would give a kidney to someone else, and then that person would donate theirs to me.”

“I’ve been through this … it’s just different when it’s you,” Ms. Sinisi said, explaining that her two sisters, brother and mother all suffered from PKD, which is a genetic disorder, and all have undergone kidney transplant surgery.

Symptoms of PKD, which Ms. Sinisi referred to as a slowly progressing disease, include stomachaches, trouble sleeping, fatigue and muscle cramps, to name a few. With PKD, water is processed through the kidneys, but the kidneys don’t transfer the water into the body where it is needed. Ms. Sinisi explained that for someone with PKD to get the value of a half-cup of water, they would have to drink about four cups.

One day, Ms. Howard and Ms. Sinisi were hiking in Palm Springs, California, and Ms. Sinisi felt a cyst on her kidney burst. They had to stop the hike, because Ms. Sinisi could feel the cyst bleeding inside her. “It was painful,” she recalled.

The women met in their first semester of law school at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin. During a mock trial session with a judge, witnesses and jury, classmates had to pair up. The two women decided to pair up for that project together—and became best friends.

“I was in her wedding party. We’ve been close friends through the years. She’s a wonderful person. It’s impossible not to be friends with her,” Ms. Sinisi said.

“Diana is a life-saver for doing this,” she said, adding that when she found out her friend was a direct match, she started crying.

The doctors did blood work, an EKG, chest X-rays and a CT scan to determine if Ms. Howard was a good candidate to be a donor. “Luckily, I was a match for my friend,” she said.

“We’re very close,” she added. “I’ve known about her kidney issues and, recently, it started getting worse and worse.”

On Monday afternoon, Ms. Sinisi was getting ready for a light lunch, the final meal before the Tuesday morning transplant surgery. “A little nervous but excited,” was how she described the feelings she was having.

“Over the last year, I’ve been restricted,” she said. “I love to hike and take long walks. I haven’t been able to. Walking even a mile makes me tired.”

Ms. Howard said that donating a kidney wasn’t a hard decision to make: “She’s sick, and I’ve got two kidneys.”

Ms. Howard is turning 59 four days after the surgery, on July 27, and will be able to leave the hospital 10 days after surgery and return to Sag Harbor for the remainder of the summer. She said she won’t be able to paddleboard for about a month.

“I’m not going to have to live a different life,” Ms. Howard said, adding that she runs and will be able to run again about a month after the transplant.

“It wasn’t a hard decision to make. If more people knew that afterward you could go back to your normal life, maybe more people would donate,” she said, adding that there are a number of people on the transplant list.

“It’s a great friendship. We’re always there for each other. Whenever anything comes up, she goes the extra mile,” Ms. Sinisi said, adding that she’s visited Ms. Howard in Sag Harbor previously.

Ms. Sinisi, who enjoys taking photos of nature, birds and the ocean, said after the transplant and recovery, she looks forward to making a trip to Sag Harbor to visit Ms. Howard for a long hike.

“If you can live the same life after and help someone, why wouldn’t you? It’s a couple weeks out of my life,” Ms. Howard said.

“She’s literally going to be with me for the rest of my life,” Ms. Sinisi said.