A South Jersey woman who made national news by finding a kidney donor on Craigslist a year ago only to have the transplant fall through announced Tuesday that she had the life-saving procedure last month.
Nina Saria, 34, a wife and mother from Egg Harbor City, was able to get a new kidney from her mother Nana Gulua, who lives in the Republic of Georgia.
But Saria, who discussed her surgery Tuesday in the Barrington office of Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.), said she might not have had the transplant if Menendez had not intervened with federal officials to grant her mother permission to travel to the United States.
"It's been difficult for us, but we kept fighting," said Saria, who is a U.S. citizen.
For years, the Sarias were just living their lives. Nina, a native of Georgia, came to this country to study about a decade ago. She met Kay Saria, now 33, who arrived as a boy from Russia and now works in construction. They married and had a son, Nicholas, now 8.
But in 2014, Nina Saria started to have some pains. When they continued, she went to a doctor and learned she had an autoimmune disease. Her kidneys were failing.
She began dialysis — as well as a search for someone willing to donate a compatible kidney, to no avail.
Finally, Kay came up with a different plan. They placed an ad on Craigslist.
What followed became a story retold in news reports around the country:
Glenn Calderbank of West Berlin, a contractor, was scanning the listings for construction supplies when a particular ad — apparently misplaced — caught his eye. It was Nina Saria's request for a kidney. A few years before, in 2011, Calderbank had lost his wife to kidney failure. She had received a kidney and pancreas from a cadaver but her body rejected the organs. Seizing the chance to possibly save a life, Calderbank answered the ad.
But that generous gesture did not turn out as hoped. On Dec. 1, 2015, while Calderbank and Saria were being readied for the transplant surgery at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, a medical complication with Calderbank was detected. The transplant was canceled.
Nina Saria said Tuesday that she remains grateful to Calderbank and the sacrifice he was willing to make for her.
But she still needed a kidney. Her mother, now 50 and a nurse, seemed a promising candidate; she would prove a perfect match, the daughter said. But soon, the family said, its efforts were stymied by State Department officials.
The federal government places the burden of proof on people traveling to the United States to show they intend to return to their country. She couldn't provide the necessary proof.
The family turned to Mayor Dudley H. Lewis of Washington Township in Burlington County, which includes the Egg Harbor City mailing address, who in turn contacted their federal representatives.
Sen. Menendez said that he had intervened to get permission for Nana Gulua to travel to the U.S. from the Republic of Georgia.
Susan Phillips, a spokeswoman for Penn Medicine, said Tuesday that the recipient "is doing well."
Menendez said at the news conference that he intends see if the entry process, particularly for when U.S. citizens need a life-saving procedure, can be improved either administratively or, if needed, through legislation.
"We need more compassion and less bureaucratic red tape," Menendez said.
He added, "For those who think it's too easy to get in this country, look at Nina's story."
Nina Saria's mother is due to fly back home to Georgia in a few days, minus one kidney.
Nina's young son, Nicholas, said he is "so happy" that his mother is no longer on dialysis. "Now we can swim and have snowball fights," the second grader said.
The recipient said she is continuing her education at Atlantic Cape Community College. Inspired by her dialysis nurse, she said she plans to go into nursing herself.
Nina Saria said used to be a worrier, a person concerned about what the future would bring. Now she said her disease has taught her to live each day. She had similar advice for others who are going through what she did.
Her wish, she said, is "for them to stay strong and stay positive and just go on living as long as they can."