Routt County mom donates kidney to teen with ties to Hayden

Jacci Jo Walton, Hayden-area mother, top right, poses with her husband, their six children and their parents during a train journey in March 2022.
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Routt County mother Jacci Jo Walton watches her 14-year-old daughter enjoy an active life at school, 4-H and attending the Routt County Fair, and she wishes for an equally active lifestyle for one another 14-year-old with family ties to Hayden.

However, 14-year-old Emri Sjostrom, whose father Daniel grew up in Hayden, is unable to lead a normal life right now. The kidney transplant he received when he was 2 years old failed. Every evening at 8 p.m. he is hooked up to a kidney dialysis machine at home for 10 hours.

About a year ago when the teenager was put on the organ donor list, his cousin Kezia Zuber, a special education teacher in the Hayden School District, shared a Facebook post about Emri Sjostrom needing a living donor for a kidney transplant. Walton felt called to help, so she prayed and shared the request with her family. Her husband and children supported her.

“If any of my kids ever needed something like this, I would just pray that someone would help them,” Walton said.

Because Walton is young and healthy at the age of 32 and has O positive blood, she underwent medical testing and even a psychological test for the state of California to determine if she is a good donor.

Walton flew to Southern California in early July for more testing at Loma Linda University’s Transplant Center in San Bernardino and to meet the Sjostrom family for the first time.

Emri’s mother, Soha Sjostrom, an elementary school special education teacher in California, was speechless at the sacrifice made by Walton, mother of six.

“I couldn’t believe it,” the California mom said. “I’ve prayed and prayed and prayed for something like this to happen, but I didn’t think it would happen.”

Siblings Emma, ​​Tobi and Emri Sjostrom pose during a visit to their family, who lives in Hayden, while on vacation in Colorado last summer. The children’s father, Daniel, grew up in Hayden.
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“What do you say to someone who is going to donate a kidney to your child? How do you thank someone who offers to give their kidney to your child and you don’t even know them?” said Sjostrom, fighting back tears. “I just called her in tears. I did not know what to say.”

Walton may have just met the Sjostrom family in person, but the families have years of connections through the Hayden schools and the small town. A former school librarian, Walton and Zuber were colleagues. Zuber worked with Walton’s children through the schools, and cousins ​​in the family had been in the same class at the Hayden school for the past few years. Zuber’s mother was Walton’s preschool teacher.

Walton also believes her own family situation influenced her decision to donate a kidney. She was adopted and now lives with her two biological children and her husband’s four children in a blended family.

“Anyone can start a family and love other people without knowing them from birth,” Walton said.

Sjostrom noted that amidst her son’s medical struggles was struggling with post-transplant lymphoproliferative disease, having to take anti-rejection medication after his kidney transplant at the age of two. He overcame this complication and the donated kidney lasted about 12 years.

The California mom wants to continue honoring the late donor of her son’s first transplanted kidney. The donor was a 6-year-old boy named Amarion Adams who was shot in the head and died in June 2010 after a shooting from a passing car at a family reunion in San Bernardino.

Emri Sjostrom, 14, bottom left, gathers with family members at the family homestead near Hayden.
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Doctors say that a living donor kidney can have better outcomes. Emri’s parents are not eligible to donate a kidney due to health, age, and blood group issues, and Emri’s fraternal twin sister Emma is too young to donate. Emri’s older brother is still a teenager, but his mother said he hopes to be able to donate a kidney to his younger brother later in life if needed.

“Recipients of a living donor kidney typically live longer and healthier than those who receive a deceased donor kidney or a kidney from someone who has just died,” according to the American Kidney Fund.

Due to complicated regulations to protect against organ trafficking, the Sjostrom family is unable to financially support Walton with her travel and some medical expenses that are not covered by her Medicaid insurance plan. So Walton’s mother, Barbara Gilbert, set up a GoFundMe page called “Become a Living Donor‘ for others who may want to help with organ donation costs.

“I hope people will help cover their expenses,” Sjostrom said. “We can’t donate to her directly; this is considered organ trafficking. I just hope the community is after her and helping her. She is an angel and she should be celebrated.”

To learn more about living organ donation, one resource is the United Network for Organ Sharing.

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