MARQUETTE - Tina Houle-Hassell is living, breathing proof you don't have to die to be an organ donor.
Just listen to her and her best friend Amy Harju - the person to whom she donated a kidney - as they talk and laugh together. Then you will know what Donate Life really means.
"We've been friends since we were in kindergarten, since we were 5 years old," Houle-Hassell said. "We grew up in north Marquette and I remember always hanging out with Amy on the swings."
Tina Houle-Hassell, left, and Amy Harju show off the bracelets Harju had made to give to family and friends during Donate Life Month in April. The two, best friends since age 5, share a special bond: Houle-Hassell donated a kidney to Harju six years ago. (Journal photo by Renee Prusi)
Houle-Hassell, now 39, didn't hesitate for a moment when she found out Harju, now 38, was in need of a kidney transplant six years ago.
"I went in and got tested and was a match," Houle-Hassell said. "I cajoled and begged them to set up a date for the surgery. They said Oct. 13 and I said as long as that wasn't a Friday, let's do it..."
She turned to Harju: "Remember, you wanted to wait until Thanksgiving but I kept telling you we needed to get it done?"
Harju responded: "I had totally forgotten about that. It was not that I didn't want her to do it. It was amazing she was willing to give. It's just that part of me was scared about what she was risking for me. She had two young daughters who I adore."
Indeed, Kaylee, 17, and Jessica, almost 13, look at Harju as an aunt, Houle-Hassell said.
Despite Harju's initial concerns, a determined Houle-Hassell got her way and the transplant took place in Madison, Wis.
"It wasn't bad," Houle-Hassell said. "Of course it hurt, but that didn't last for long. And Amy looked better right away."
Houle-Hassell's surgery was done laparoscopically.
"So I don't really even have any scars," Houle-Hassell said. "And I am the biggest baby when it comes to having anything done. If I can do it, anyone can."
Rapid-fire talkers both, the women often finish each other's sentences. And laugh together. A lot.
"We went from sharing the swings to being rebels as teens..." Houle-Hassell said.
"... to being smarter rebels," Harju finished as they both chuckled.
The two have always felt a bond, but never stronger than now.
"They told Amy it was like it was her kidney all along," Houle-Hassell said. "It just goes to show you, you don't have to be a relative to be a match. And if I could donate part of my liver to a baby who's waiting for a transplant, I'd do it in a second.
"I remember when I was up on the floor of the hospital (after donating). All the people up there, waiting. It was sad," she said. "That just shows how important it is to be a donor."
With April being Donate Life Month, Harju had some green rubber wristbands made to give to friends and family.
"I want to do what I can to show support and raise awareness of Donate Life Month," Harju said. "It has been almost six years since Tina donated to me. It's such an amazing thing. Life is such a gift and giving the gift to someone else, well, I wanted to do something to celebrate that.
"Next year, I want to organize a walk-run to support organ donation."
The women celebrate their special bond each Oct. 13.
Harju said the pair hoped by telling their story they might encourage others to recognize the importance of organ donation.
"Life is a gift. There are difficult chapters in everyone's life," she said. "What's there to be negative about? This was a gift shared between friends.
"Life is meant to be lived healthy," she said. "And thanks to my friend, I am able to do that."
Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253.