October 01, 2018

By Amanda O’Rourke

When college roommates Gwen Bodner ’16 and Erica Juliano ’16 met as first-year students, they surely had no idea how close their friendship would become.

A year-and-a-half ago, Juliano donated one of her kidneys to Bodner, who, as a sophomore at Susquehanna, was diagnosed with kidney disease.

Bodner remembers feeling more fatigued than normal during midterms that year. Tests eventually confirmed a diagnosis of IgA nephropathy.

“My professors showed such compassion and understanding while I tried to balance my schoolwork with all that was involved in confirming my diagnosis,” Bodner says. “I was amazed at the lengths my professors were willing to go to make sure I did well in their classes and still had the opportunity to take care of my health.”

IgA nephropathy is a condition that occurs when a protein lodges in the kidneys, preventing them from functioning normally. Though the disease usually progresses slowly over many years, Bodner’s case was particularly serious.

As her kidney function continued to decline, Bodner tried various methods of treating her condition, from medications to a special diet, all while enduring monthly kidney function tests. Despite this, she graduated on time in 2016, with summa cum laude and departmental honors for her degree in English and secondary education certification.

But after graduation, her health began an even steeper decline, and in January 2017, Bodner was forced to accept that the only treatment option left was a transplant.

“I remember taking comfort in the certainty of the success a transplant would provide,” Bodner says, “finally knowing for sure that we would no longer have to ‘try this treatment and see what happens.’”

Incredibly, Juliano, by then a chemistry teacher in York, had no idea her best friend was so sick. Having been diagnosed at 10 with Crohn’s disease, Bodner says she became skilled at hiding her health crises.

“Erica was aware that something was wrong with my kidneys and that I was leaving campus frequently to commute to Geisinger,” Bodner says. “I tried not to worry her with all the details of my diagnosis or my symptoms, not because I deliberately tried to hide it from her, but simply because this was how I always handled things.”

When Juliano saw a Facebook post from Bodner finally revealing the severity of her condition, she immediately reached out to help.

“Why not?” Juliano says now. “I worried that if I didn’t step up to help one of my best friends that the process would go on for many years before she was near the top of the transplant list.”

Within a few months, Juliano was confirmed as a viable kidney match, and surgery was set for June 8, 2017.

“She made me feel really comfortable about it,” Juliano said of Bodner. “I love her for that.”

Though Juliano was nervous the day of the operation, everything went smoothly. Besides dietary guidelines, she has relatively few restrictions on her life post-surgery, and Bodner is no longer on any medication to treat the effects of kidney failure.

Though she takes three anti-rejection medications and must be extremely careful about germs, Bodner says she has more energy than ever.

In addition to changing the longevity of her life, Juliano’s gift has also changed the professional trajectory of Bodner’s career. Despite her passion for English and teaching, Bodner now has plans to pursue a career as a physician assistant in pediatric nephrology or gastroenterology.

In the meantime, Bodner is working as a medical scribe in an emergency department, where she documents every aspect of the patient’s visit in his/her chart. She also works as a peer mentor for the National Kidney Foundation, where she mentors anyone with a chronic kidney disease. Finally, she is taking prerequisite classes to prepare to apply to physician assistant programs.

“As close as Erica and I were by the end of our senior year at SU, our friendship was still relatively new, having begun only four years before,” Bodner says. “That’s why I was surprised. Somehow, in four years I had met someone who had come to care for me so much that she would be willing to give me part of herself.”