Family shares the gift of life in a donation

POULSBO — Michelle Stice’s family had always thought she and her grandmother were similar, but soon the two may share more than their spunky personalities.

Michelle, 28, a Poulsbo resident, is in desperate need of a kidney donation. Her grandmother Opal Stice, 61, has volunteered to be the one to give Michelle the gift of life this holiday season.

“I’m not scared. If I’m qualified, I would gladly do it,” Opal commented. “It’s more than a privilege, more than a gift to be able to give to a life.”

Michelle, the daughter of Gary and Tina Stice of Poulsbo, was born with oral-facial-digital syndrome type 1. The disease mainly affects the face and palate area in early life — Michelle has had about 10-15 surgeries on her face and palate over the years. Later in life, many with the syndrome also develop cysts throughout their body, like the ones that are slowly cutting off Michelle’s kidney function. However, most with the syndrome are not expected to have to worry about these problems.

“When she was born, they said she wouldn’t live to see 5,” Opal recalled. “She’s proved a lot of doctors wrong.”

Adjusting to a child with a disability has been a challenge for the close-knit Stice family, but one they now say they relish. The baby no doctor thought would live through infancy is now a bright, independent young woman who graduated from North Kitsap High School with honors.

“People say, ‘How do you do it?’” Tina said of living with a family member with a disability. “It’s just something we’ve been blessed with and it’s something you have been given.”

“Everyday we have her it’s a blessing,” Opal added. Besides her volunteer work in the special education program at Pearson Elementary, where Tina has been a teacher’s aide for 16 years, Michelle is an active participant in Special Olympics in basketball, bowling, track and softball.

“I like all of them, I can’t pick a favorite,” Michelle said of her sports teams. “But I’ve been waiting for basketball. I just can’t resist it.”

Michelle was also the beloved bat girl for Dick Thompson’s Diamond Dusters for a number of years.

Like most aspects of the family’s life, Special Olympics is one in which everyone participates.

Michelle’s younger sister Ashley, who serves as Michelle’s coach, said she’s seen her sister grow by leaps and bounds in the program.

“In Special Olympics, she treats the other athletes like they’re her children. She’s very compassionate,” she said.

But beneath her athletic and feisty exterior, Michelle is still very sick. She was diagnosed with kidney failure about five years ago and for the last four years has been visiting doctors every other week for blood work and medication to monitor progress. This summer, doctors told the Stices to begin looking for donors and Michelle was put on the three and a half year waiting list for a donated kidney.

“I carry a beeper for that with me all the time but they said she doesn’t have three and a half years, so to find family members to see if they’d be willing to do a donation,” Tina recalled. “We’ve had people come up, friends and family, and say they’ll be tested. They’re willing to give up a kidney to save her life. How do you even accept that?”

Doctors estimate that Michelle will have lost kidney function by December and are hoping to have a donor in place as soon as possible.

Tina is unable to donate to her daughter because of high blood pressure, but Opal, Michelle’s uncle Mike and her father Gary Jr. are all in line for the possibility.

Right now, Opal is the leading contender for the opportunity. She said she’s honored to have the ability to help her first granddaughter.

“It’s something you’ve always lived with and you don’t want to give her up yet. I’d trade my life for any of my grandkids,” Opal commented with a tear in her eye.

But the family is also looking for the community’s help.

A special donation jar has been placed at Sluys Bakery to help defray the cost of the operation. Opal said the procedure will include ferry rides to and from Seattle, hospital stays and also about a month and a half leave for her from her job at the Port of Poulsbo and for Tina from Pearson.

The family has some insurance and some leave time at work, but not enough to cover everything.

“It’s going to be a big expense,” Opal said. “The more I read about it I realize I’m blind, I never knew how expensive and how painful this is.”

But no matter what, the family says they’re going to make this work for Michelle. Opal said from the moment she heard Michelle may need a kidney operation, she’d always thought she’d be the one to make the donation because of the special bond the two of them have. Opal said she and Michelle have always had a similar personality, similar tempers and a similar sense of humor. She said she’s looking forward to the possibility of having an even greater bond with her granddaughter through her donation.

“And I’ll be able to tell you that you have to mind me because you have part of me,” Opal joked, giving Michelle a tickle on her side.

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