Truckee woman provides gift of life to fellow neighbor in need |

Truckee woman provides gift of life to fellow neighbor in need

Madeline Hnatowich-Dean
Special to the Sun
Sonya Retzlaff Huggins, left, and Sharon Filardo share a moment earlier this year.
Courtesy Sharon Filardo |

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TRUCKEE, Calif. — This is a story about a small group of dedicated women, one extraordinarily generous woman, and many small business owners around the Tahoe Basin who banded together to save another woman’s life.

That woman is my friend, Sharon Filardo.

Sharon and her husband, Phil, a retired San Jose policeman, moved to Tahoe Vista in September 2003, after Sharon retired from 32 years of teaching. Tahoe’s natural environment was the draw, with plans for hiking, skiing and golf filling their days.

After a life of public service, it was natural for Sharon to become part of the community by volunteering. She began at the Kings Beach Hospice Thrift store, then joined AAUW and a local philanthropy group, Tahoe League for Charity.

Retirement was going as planned until 2007 when medical tests revealed there were high levels of creatinine (protein) in Sharon’s urine. A biopsy determined she had FSGS (Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis), a rare disease that attacks the kidney’s filtering units, causing permanent damage.

There is no cure. In 2009, when her kidney function was below 20%, Sharon applied to the donor list. Sharon and Phil went through an extensive 6-hour interview before receiving acceptance.

To increase her chances, Sharon realized she would have to go public with this and needed help.

Sharon’s friend, Patti Boxeth, and three other strong, energetic, supportive women — Joan O’Lear, Nina Rogers and Darlene Rempher — became “Sharon’s Mountain Sisters.”

They created a poster of Sharon’s face in the form of a puzzle with one piece missing. Contact information, blood type, etc., was on that poster. The first campaign started in September 2013 with 100 posters printed. Small business owners all around Tahoe, Truckee and Carson City displayed Sharon’s posters. Only two declined.

Four women stepped forward. None of them survived the rigorous testing process. In June 2014, Sharon attended a U.C. Davis Seminar on Live Donors. The significant differences between a live donor and deceased convinced her to put her name on hold status on the donor list and look solely for a live donor.

Her support group distributed 300 more posters. By September 2014, Sharon’s kidney functioning was at 14% and she was cold and tired all the time. At 10% her doctors would insist she start dialysis, and her chances for a successful transplant would diminish. A low protein, low potassium diet stabilized her kidneys and she tried to keep her spirits up.

Sonya Retzlaff Huggins, of Truckee, saw Sharon’s poster the first time in 2013 at her favorite copy place, Truckee Copy Center on Donner Pass Road. She felt a kinship since Sonya is a Paraeducator in Resource at Truckee Elementary School.

She took one look at that beautiful face, put her hands up into the air and said “Somebody please help this woman!” The second time Sonya went to the copy center, Sharon’s poster was down and the owner, Kevin Salas, had no information.

In the middle of this, Sonya flew to Portland, Ore., to visit her son. She was looking forward to reading a book when the man sitting next to her started talking. He was a kidney specialist from Las Vegas.

Sonya told him about Sharon. Seeing she was interested, the doctor gave her a tutorial on becoming a donor, told her to “stick with Sharon” and that if she was serious about doing this she should — as he had seen it change people’s lives.

A month later, Sonya returned to the coffee shop, and Sharon’s poster was back up. In September 2014, Sonya emailed Sharon and then sent her application to the UC Davis transplant center in Sacramento.

After every test, Sonya e-mailed Sharon with only two words: “Good news.” At each stage, the medical team asked if she wanted to be a universal donor and she always said, “I’m sticking with Sharon.”

Almost a year later, Sonya was cleared to be Sharon’s donor. She told her husband Dave while hiking on the Tahoe Rim Trail. She told her three sons — Stein, Thor and Wulfe — on Nov. 5, 2015.

They ran out of the house, emptied a can of kidney beans, filled it with flowers, and brought them to their mother.

On June 20, 2016, both women entered UC Davis Medical Center in downtown Sacramento close to 5 a.m. Both surgeries were extremely successful, and they were placed across the hall from each other.

They met for the first time the next morning when Sonya walked across the hall, each sharing one of Sonya’s kidneys.

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