TUCSON, Ariz. – They'd known each other barely six months, but as she watched her client become wan, weak and gravely ill, Marana hairdresser Elizabeth Littlefield felt she couldn't just stand by and do nothing.
Dale Charnick's kidneys were failing. So Littlefield, an outgoing single mother of two young children, made an offer.
"I have two good kidneys," she told Charnick as she styled her hair, barely missing a beat. "You can have one of mine."
It was a generous and unexpected offer. Initially, Charnick and her husband, Jesse, weren't sure what to make of it.
But Littlefield, 35, was true to her word. She went for a complex medical work-up that included repeated tests and screenings, a meeting with a social worker, a psychological evaluation, and three days capturing her urine in a cooler to ensure proper kidney function.
Three times, she was poised for surgery that was canceled due to complications.
The fourth time, it all finally went as planned. On Nov. 11, Littlefield underwent surgery at University Medical Center to remove one of her kidneys. The kidney was placed in a cold IV solution and cleaned, then transplanted to Charnick in an adjacent operating room.
Charnick, 64, is feeling stronger already.
She was in terrible condition back in 2006 when she first mentioned needing a kidney transplant to Littlefield. Her kidneys were shutting down — a condition she believes was brought on by high blood pressure that runs in her family and is difficult to control. She was on a strict diet, spending more than 10 hours a week in dialysis and desperately trying to find a kidney match from a relative.
Littlefield and Charnick first met about three years ago when Charnick, who had recently moved to Marana from San Diego, walked into Southwest Hair Design.
About two years ago, Charnick's health began to decline. Littlefield said it was difficult to watch — Charnick looked waxy and gray, and lost 60 pounds. She appeared to be wasting away.
"She looked like a corpse," said Littlefield. "I couldn't stand watching her suffer. I don't think people realize how awful dialysis is."
When no one in her family was deemed suitable, because of health concerns, Charnick and Jesse, her husband, resigned themselves to the fact that the ideal situation — finding a "living donor" — would not be possible.
Charnick would have to go on a national waiting list for a kidney from a deceased donor.
The mortality rate for patients on the waiting list is about 6 percent per year, which means about one-third of potential kidney recipients on the deceased-donor waiting list die before their name comes up, said Dr. Rainer Gruessner, chairman of the University of Arizona's department of surgery and chief of abdominal transplant.
Though Littlefield's family worried about the procedure — her mother was scared she'd die during the anesthesia — Littlefield said she was never nervous or scared.
"Dale reminds me of my mom. She's my friend. All my clients are my friends. You don't want to sit and watch your friend die," she said.
Littlefield went home the day after the surgery and has no lingering effects, except for five small abdominal scars — each less than an inch long — that mark the "ports" doctors used for the laparoscopic surgery.
"No one had kidney issues in my family," Littlefield said. "If we'd had a history then I'd have thought differently. But there are people living with one kidney all over the place."
While the removal of a kidney is a major operation, the risks associated with it are very low, Gruessner said.
"The risk of dying from donating a kidney is about one in 10,000," Gruessner said. "So, basically the same as you driving home tonight and being involved in a fatal car accident."
Still, it's not too often that non-family members will step forward and go through with donating a kidney. About 25 to 30 percent are not related by blood but most of those are spouses, he said.
Jesse, 65, said he was afraid to believe that Littlefield's offer to help his wife would actually happen.
"You just think something will happen. How can you believe it? She's a really strong woman. It takes courage to do what she did," he said.
For her part, Littlefield doesn't think of her gesture as terribly special.
To top it off, the day after surgery Littlefield showed up in her hospital room with flowers for Charnick.
Charnick said she's still amazed by Littlefield's kindness.
"She saved my life," she said.
"She saved mine, too," Jesse added.