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5-year-old receives much-needed kidney from her selfless preschool teacher

The early childhood special education teacher revealed that she never had second thoughts about helping the young girl.

5-year-old receives much-needed kidney from her selfless preschool teacher
Cover Image Source: GoFundMe

Five-year-old Kayleigh Kulage has been a fighter all her life. Born premature at 26 weeks and treated in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for over 150 days after her birth, the youngster from Pacific, Missouri, is a true survivor in every sense of the word. Even after leaving the NICU, Kayleigh has had to deal with a multitude of medical complications including a compromised immune system, blindness, and failing kidneys. "Her whole life has been a lot of hospital visits, surgeries, and doctors' appointments," her mom, Desiree Kulage, told Good Morning America. "She's been around doctors and nurses and adults her whole life, that's all she really knows."

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Despite needing 11 hours of dialysis treatment every night for more than 4 years, since Kayleigh is smaller for her age — at just 26 pounds and 2 feet, 10 inches in height — she had to wait to reach a certain size before she could be eligible for a kidney transplant. The long-awaited moment arrived in October last year and the young girl was finally added to the kidney transplant list. When her preschool teacher, Robin Mach, found out about it, she wondered if maybe she could be of help.

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Mach, an early childhood special education teacher for more than 20 years, has been teaching Kayleigh for more than two years. Since her student's immune system was too weak for her to attend school with other children, she would travel to Kayleigh's home to teach her. "One day Desiree and I were just talking and I asked her, 'Can the kidney be from an adult?,' and she said, 'Yes,'" Mach recalled. "I said what do I need to do to check it out? Maybe I'm small enough." Mach — who is less than five feet tall — soon began undergoing tests to see if she was a perfect match for Kayleigh. 

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After almost a three-month-long "roller coaster" of tests and emotions, Mach learned that she could be a viable kidney donor for her student. "When they gave us a surgery date, that’s when it got real that we were doing this," she said. "I wasn't nervous about the surgery, but I was more nervous that something was going to happen that would keep us from being able to have the surgery, especially with COVID." As per new guidelines in place during the Coronavirus pandemic, Mach, Kayleigh, and her parents quarantined for two weeks leading up to February 3 — the day of the surgery.

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Both teacher and student underwent a successful, six-hour kidney transplant at a hospital in St. Louis, and Mach was discharged just two days after. She also got to see Kayleigh for a brief "very emotional" moment in the hospital before she went home. "I was sore and I was tired but it wasn't bad," Mach said of her recovery. "I would always just think about all of the stuff Kayleigh has gone through over the years." According to Kulage, Kayleigh is also now home from the hospital and has already been showing signs of improvement. As the doctors predicted, she is growing and looking and feeling better with her new kidney.

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After having to always do sponge baths due to the catheter for the dialysis machine, the 5-year-old also got to take a bath for the first time in her life after the surgery. The family is now planning their first vacation, hopefully to the beach. "Kayleigh used to have dark circles under eyes and was kind of pale and now she has these rosy cheeks," said Kulage. "She is the most resilient kid. And she has a better quality of life now. She can be 'normal' and not feel so sick." The grateful mother revealed that Mach has been checking in with the family every day and even offered to help with their laundry and other chores as soon as she was released from the hospital.

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"She acts like she just took her to the spa and painted her toes. She acts like it's nothing," Kulage said of Mach. "I just don't know how to thank somebody like her. All I keep on saying is, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you.'" Mach, who described Kayleigh as "resilient" and also "just a lot of fun," revealed that she never had second thoughts about helping the young girl. "I've known adults that have been on the transplant list but I didn't fully realize the demand for kids. It surprised me too that tiny kids, like Kayleigh, can receive organs from adults. I don't think many people realize that as adults they can help kids," she said, adding that she hopes her experience inspires others.

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