By Jill Harmacinski
---- — There were the day trips to Maine, nice dinners out and a couple of years ago, Jon Schiller bought his wife a beautiful diamond tennis bracelet.
This year, Schiller’s Mother’s Day gift to his wife Julie Brien Schiller will be a hard one to top.
On Monday, Schiller gave his wife of 20 years a kidney — an organ she desperately need to live. He beat out blood out relatives, including her sister Lynne and brother Patrick, as her kidney donor match.
“You really can’t rate this one,” said Julie, a Lawrence native, this week. “I’m still speechless and amazed. It proves how much he loves me. He did this at a drop of a hat, with no reservations.”
One of six of Stephen and Claire Brien’s children, Julie grew up at 208 Farnham St. and graduated from Greater Lawrence Technical High School in 1983. Back then, she also worked at the Showcase Cinemas in Haverhill, where a friend set her up on a blind date with Schiller, who also worked there.
“My best friend’s sister (Kim Carter) set us up,” explained Julie, 48.
Julie and Jon dated for a year, got engaged and married a year later.
Julie went to work for the postal service and is a letter carrier in Portsmouth, N.H. Jon is a service advisor at the Herb Chambers dealership in Danvers. The couple has a 4-year-old daughter Faith.
When she was born in 1964, Julie was premature, weighing only five pounds. Throughout her life, her kidneys “were never fully functioning to begin with,” she said. Six years ago, doctors saw some warning signs in her urine samples, where low protein was detected. About two years ago, the fatigue hit.
“The kidney function was dropping dramatically,” she said.
The search began for a donor and Julie went to dialysis, where she was hooked to machines that did the work her kidneys couldn’t.
“It was more inconvenient than anything,” she said, but she was hopeful about a kidney transplant. “I could see the light at the end of tunnel.”
She was originally scheduled for surgery on Halloween 2012, with her sister Lynn, 39, as the donor. But some changes in antibodies in her blood were a concern for doctors. The same thing happened with her brother Patrick, 37. If she had gone through the transplant then, “everything came with a 40 percent higher risk,” she explained.
Her search for a kidney started again. Jon selflessly stepped up.
“He was a better match than either of my siblings,” she said.
Jon said he was never hesitant or scared about giving Julie a kidney and undergoing surgery.
“It’s something we had to do together,” he said.
On Monday, husband and wife underwent surgery at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H. Jon’s left kidney was removed and transplanted into Julie’s left side. There’s a bit of a size difference between the two; Julie is 5 foot 7 inches tall and weighs 150 pounds. Jon weights 235 pounds and stands 6 feet, 2 inches.
“His kidney was the size of a football ... It took a while to get it in,” Julie said, chuckling. Nonetheless, in an interview two days after the surgery, Julie said she was feeling great.
On Thursday, the couple was released and returned to their Fremont, N.H. home. “Everybody heals faster at home,” Jon said.
With her new kidney, Julie was also eating things she couldn’t have for months, including potatoes, cheese, bananas and yogurt. Before, she had to monitor her potassium intake carefully because her kidneys couldn’t handle it.
The couple still has four to six weeks recovery time at home. Going forward, both are expected to live healthy normal lives.
Julie said the support from family and friends the couple has received is just amazing.
Today, on Mother’s Day, the Schillers plan to just relax. And as for a gift today, Julie said she’s all set on that front.
“I don’t have the gall to ask him for anything any more,” she said, laughing. “It’s just awesome!”
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Facebook under the screenname EagleTribJill.