- Associated Press - Saturday, June 25, 2016

PEORIA, Ill. (AP) - Lori Orton set out to locate her biological family not knowing what she might find, or whether they would even want to speak with her.

She’s always known growing up in Washington that she’d been adopted at birth from a young mother, but she had no solid information to go on to find her birth family until she found a document helping her mother move that had their names.

Even then, her journey to reconnect with her roots would be marred with complications and dead ends, and, rather unexpectedly, a chance to not just become a part of someone’s life, but to save it.

“You don’t get too many chances in your life to do something that really matters and really makes a difference, and to be able to show my kids that it’s important to do things for other people - and to just know that I did something that matters - was something for myself,” said Orton, of Pekin.

Orton’s biological family history, as she discovered, was complicated. Her biological father, who had never been in a serious relationship with her biological mother, died tragically in a car accident that also claimed the life of his two children. No one in his family even knew that he had fathered another child who’d been given up for adoption.

Her biological mother also died shortly after their reunion, but despite losing both her birth parents, Orton discovered she had a large extended family in the Princeton area, many of whom knew about her and had wished for years for their reunion.

With one cousin in particular, Joe Russelburg, she had an especially close relationship. After a whirlwind of introductions to dozens of her family members, Orton and Russelburg had their first opportunity to get to know each other and discovered how much they had in common, from their hobbies to the close ages of their children.

Almost instantly, the cousins, who spent the first three-plus decades of their life totally separate, forged a bond closer than friendship. Already, they felt like family.

“It was something I hadn’t really felt before, and I don’t even know how to explain it,” Orton said.

“I don’t know what it is that makes us feel close to each other.”

At first, those conversations centered around their family history and how Orton fit in. While some of her family members were skeptical of her intention, for Russelburg it was clear early on that she was only looking for answers.

“She was a very open, very sweet woman, genuine to the sense that she wanted to get to know people and understand where she came from. It wasn’t like she was seeking out to receive something. She had a true, genuine want to know,” he said.

Russelburg’s health had started to deteriorate in early 2015 as complications from diabetes put him in renal failure in the early part of 2015, about three years after they met. Once an active father to his three teen children, he was struggling just to get through the day.

“Basically it was go to work and then I was confined to a couch for the rest of the week,” Russelburg said.

In December, he collapsed at work and had to be flown by Life Flight to OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, where he was told his kidneys were operating at 4 percent of their normal capacity, and he was placed on the waiting list for a kidney transplant - a list with an average wait of five to eight years.

Without hesitation, Orton volunteered to donate one of her own.

“I had just gotten my family, I had just connected with these people, and him in particular I had just connected with so strongly. I can’t imagine losing him after having something that I’d never had before like that,” she said.

After weeks of blood tests, physical examinations and interviews to determine that Orton was a fit donor, she and Russelburg went under the knife on Jan. 25. Before surgeons even closed his incision, Orton’s kidney was already working inside his body - which doctors said is an indication of what a close match they were.

“I was up and walking the halls of the hospital floor within eight hours of the surgery,” Russelburg said. “It’s amazing how much better I felt so quickly.”

Dr. Manish Gupta, a transplant surgeon with RenalCare Associates who performed the procedure, points out that many transplant patients aren’t so lucky.

More than 120,000 people are waiting for some kind of life-saving organ in the United States today, he said, and the demand for organs far outpaces the supply. On average, each day 22 people will die waiting for donation.

Kidney donations, along with certain types of lung and liver donations, are unique in that they can be performed with organs from a living donor, assuming doctors can find someone who is both willing to make such a valuable donation and is medically suitable to do so.

To those that can, the long-term effects of the procedure are usually minimal, Gupta explained.

“To a previously healthy person, they can live a perfectly normal, healthy remainder of their life without ever missing that kidney,” he said.

But to Orton, the payoff has been great.

Now the cousins, separated for much of their lives by circumstance, were bonded by flesh and blood.

“Seeing the immediate change made it absolutely worth it,” Orton said.

“I think that’s something that’s lost in society right now, a lot. Everybody’s thinking about what’s going on in their own world that a lot of people don’t think about what they can do for other people.”

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Source: (Peoria) Journal Star, https://bit.ly/1U9Hm7J

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Information from: Journal Star, https://pjstar.com

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