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Rachel and Clay and a gift of life

Clay Benson and Rachel Balson Clay Benson and Rachel Balson

Little did Rachel Balson realize, as she checked the box to be an organ donor on her first North Carolina driver’s license, how God would use her decision.

She never considered being a living donor, but all that changed when her buddy, twelve-year-old Clay Benson, needed a transplant to save his life.

At 16, Rachel secured a job at the Hendersonville Chick-Fil-A restaurant owned by Joel and Wendy Benson. Now 30, she is the executive director of the franchise. Over the years she has worked there, the Benson family nestled their way into her heart. “I ate meals in their home, babysat their four children and eventually went on vacations with them.”
In 2009 the Bensons began the process of adopting two children. When they left for China in November 2010, Rachel ran the franchise and house-sat during their three-week absence. On Dec. 10 she transported their children to meet their new brother and sister at the airport.
“It took 28 hours from the time they left China until the Bensons landed in North Carolina,” Rachel recalled. “Four-year-old Clay was very happy to get off the plane. He was so adorable. Even though he couldn’t speak any English, Clay was full of joy. Ten-year-old Minnie just watched her new brother run circles around everyone.”
Joel and Wendy asked Rachel to continue living at their home while everyone adjusted to their new normal. She stayed until they began their summer break from home schooling. This was the beginning of a special bond between her and Clay.
In April 2019 Clay’s parents took him to a joint specialist because of his frequent complaints of pain. Shortly after they arrived home, the doctor called to say his creatinine levels were life threateningly high. Fear gripped their hearts as they drove Clay to Mission Hospital where an ambulance waited to transport him to the University of North Carolina hospital in Chapel Hill four hours away.
Rachel was shocked and heartbroken when she heard the news. The Bensons were devastated when the UNC doctors told them Clay was in stage four kidney failure. He needed a transplant and the wait for one could take up to two years. He had already endured 10 surgeries for issues with his urinary system. They immediately placed Clay on dialysis three times a day while they ran tests over the next two weeks. When he returned home, a dialysis machine, devised to run overnight, went with them. Life as Clay knew it came to a screeching halt. Vacations and ski competitions were now a thing of the past.
In May, Rachel contacted the UNC transplant coordinator and volunteered to be his donor. “Clay has always been so special to me,” she said. “I wanted to know if one of my kidneys could save his life.” A relative was the first one on the list, so while Clay’s aunt went through tests to determine if she could donate, Rachel filled out forms and transplant questionnaires.
News came in September that the aunt wouldn’t be a good match. Preliminary blood tests were then run on Rachel and she received materials to read about what life as a living donor entailed. In December Rachel found out she was a perfect match but still needed to spend two full days at UNC for blood work, tests, x-rays and scans to determine how well her kidneys functioned and if she was healthy enough to live with just one. “I asked the surgeon if I could resume mountain biking and triathlons after the surgery. He assured me I would, but it could take up to a year to get back where I was before.”
Rachel had only experienced one outpatient orthopedic surgery in high school, so she wasn’t sure what to expect. Conversations with other donors put her mind at ease.
In early January of this year Rachel was overjoyed when she received the green light to proceed with the transplant. “By then I was so ready!” she said. “My mind and heart were set on this.”
On Jan. 23, she and Clay checked into a hotel near the UNC campus so they could report for surgery at 6 o’clock the next morning. An air of excitement prevailed as they prepped for their procedures. Nurses took Rachel to the operating room a half hour before Clay and she was in post-op within four hours. “The surgeon later told me my kidney was the healthiest one he’d ever seen, and it started functioning the minute he placed it in Clay’s body,” she said.
Over the next few days, Rachel and Clay walked the halls together. “I noticed he almost always out-walked me,” she said. “I then realized he’d been sick for so long and now that he had a fully functioning kidney, he was full of energy. He felt elated to be off dialysis and looked forward to getting on ski’s again.”
After three days in the hospital and a few days recuperating in a nearby hotel Rachel was released from UNC care when she passed her one-week check-up. Clay stayed in the ICU two days and then in a regular room for three more before he went home. The doctors were amazed at how quickly he recovered. Clay returned to UNC once a week during a two-month period of home quarantine.
“Clay doesn’t dwell on the fact that he now has a suppressed immune system and will be on anti-rejection medications the remainder of his life,” his father said. “He is just anxious to get back to life as a normal teenager.”
Rachel experienced some dizziness, brain fog, shortness of breath and extreme fatigue, but she has no regrets. “I would do it all over again if I had to!” she said.
She must return to UNC for a check-up at one month, six months, one year and two years. “After that I’ll just see a local physician annually,” she said.
The Bensons are so grateful for Rachel’s selfless act. “She has always been a part of our family, but even more so now,” Joel said. “We are very proud of her.”
Rachel smiles when she describes an act of love that changed two lives.
“I am in awe of how God brought a boy from China to my hometown to orchestrate His miraculous plan to save Clay’s life,” she said. “It blows my mind!”

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A freelance writer, Kathy Pierson is a long-standing member of the American Christian Writers who has published stories in several periodicals.