By Julie Wolfe @ 11Alive
ATLANTA, Ga.-- The familiar notes of "Happy Birthday" ring through the hospital cafeteria at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. Quinn Roberts wanted a big costume party celebration. Instead, she's told she can't light her candles. "Will my wish still come true?" she wonders.
She's celebrating here for a reason: her biggest gift comes tomorrow.
"Well, my birthday is really tomorrow," Quinn explains, her eyes going wide with excitement, "but I'm getting my kidney out and a new kidney, so we had to do it tonight."
Eight years ago, Quinn was born with Polycystic Kidney Disease.
"I think she was noticing the changes in her body," Quinn's mom, Julia, explains. "Her kidney function is decreasing at an alarming rate."
Quinn's quest for a transplant began in earnest last December. On Christmas Eve, she read from a note written in red crayon: "Dear Santa. . . I went to the kidney doctor and I did not get a kidney."
11Alive News shared her humble Christmas wish. It touched hearts. Strangers and friends wanted to help.
Santa Claus did not answer that Christmas wish. A close family friend, Cheryl Thomas, did.
"You buy things just to buy things, because that's what you do at the holidays, but this was something I could really give, and it was meaningful," Cheryl said.
She knows Quinn and her family from church. She had already been tested, and knew she could be a match. She was simply waiting for the call. It came shortly after Quinn wrote her "Dear Santa" letter.
Cheryl says, "It was an easy choice. I don't mean to make it sound like it was nothing, but I've known Quinn since the day she was born, and this family means a, and I love them."
"It's really hard to put into words," Julia Roberts says. "Because there really isn't a way to thank or repay someone for the gift of an organ."
A gift delivered on the same day as Quinn's birthday. Julia says, "The symbolism certainly isn't lost on us."
Quinn falls asleep. Ending her last day at seven years old, her last day with two bad kidneys.
Preparations for her transplant start early. Dr. Christian Larsen with Children's Healthcare of Atlanta says, "A transplant requires a lot of teamwork. In this case, between Emory and Children's, surgeons and nurses, social workers, family members. It takes a lot to pull off a transplant, so everyone's working together."
In the hallway leading into the operating room, Julia bends over and kisses Quinn on the forehead: "I love you. Sleep well, sweet pea."
Quinn's dad Julian gives her a first bump: "The way Julia and I survive, is that I'm strong when she's an emotion wreck, and the other way around." Both are dry-eyed as they wave goodbye. The moment Quinn is out of sight, a tearful embrace turns to sobs.
"I'm just so overwhelmed," Julia says.
As Quinn heads to the operating room, Cheryl's kidney is traveling through an underground tunnel that connects Emory University Hospital and Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. This amazing gift is carried in humble wrapping: an orange rolling cooler.
Julia and Julian sit in the family waiting room. "I'm just so overwhelmed by what it takes for someone to donate a kidney and for the surgeons to put it in. It's mystical and magical," Julia says.
An hour into surgery, our camera captures the true moment of magic: Quinn's dying kidney sits beside Cheryl's healthy kidney.
Dr. Larsen says, "It was grossly abnormal, it was diseased, big, molted, and bumpy."
Quinn could not have lived long with that kidney.
"Mostly, with these live transplants, the kidney starts to work right away, it's pretty great. The kidney goes from a grey color to a healthy pink right away," Dr. Larsen says.
Two and a half hours into surgery, Quinn leaves the operating room with a healthy kidney for the first time in her life.
Julia: "A gift like this is overwhelming anyway, but there's something beautiful and magical that it's happening on her birthday."
Quinn's eighth birthday was marked by a celebration of life: everything that makes it good.
Watch a video of Quinn's journey through the transplant process. 11Alive follows her before, during and after her kidney transplant.