Kidney transplant strengthens married educators' bond

Locust Grove resident, J.D. Van Sickle, said he was surprised the attention his family has received regarding his wife's request to have additional sick leave from the Henry County School System.

The 70-year-old grandfather said his wife will need the additional days to recover from the surgery she plans to undergo to give him one of her kidneys –– to save his life. He said she is scheduled to report to the transplant clinic at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta on Aug. 10, for the surgery on Aug. 11.

Initially, it was not clear if his wife's request for the time off would be granted, and that created interest in the case among the news media.

Now, things have changed: "We're ready to rock and roll," said his wife, Keri Van Sickle, a social studies teacher at Locust Grove Middle School.

The relieved wife is a rare kidney match to her husband. She said she did not want to miss the opportunity to provide her long-time husband with the gift of life. "I'm so lucky I was a match," she said. "Who would have ever dreamed I would have been a match."

"I'm elated," added husband, J.D. Van Sickle, who learned Tuesday evening that his wife's request for 25 days away from her job had been approved. He said he had just gotten the news in a call from Virgil Cole, the school system's director of human resource services.

J.D. Van Sickle said he and his wife had been concerned about her eligibility for "sick leave bank" days. "She's never drawn on the sick leave bank before," he said.

They were initially told representatives in human resource services that she might not be eligible for additional sick leave days, which are provided through the school system's sick leave bank, because her donor surgery did not qualify, he added.

"... Our system ... values all of our employees in all capacities," said J.D. Hardin, communications specialist for the school system, in response to inquiries about the sick leave bank. "With that in mind, we also place a high value on each of our employees' physical well-being ..."

School board policy does not allow comments in detail, concerning its personnel, and actions involving them, said Hardin.

Hardin pointed out that the system's sick leave bank is a voluntary component of its benefits package. It is a system-wide accumulation of donated sick leave days.

Employees, who elect to join the sick leave bank, donate two days of their accumulated sick leave to the bank, explained Hardin, who said eligible members can request a withdrawal from the bank for personal illness, or temporary disability.

The bank is administered a committee of seven employees appointed annually the superintendent, and approved the school board, he continued. The committee receives, verifies, and approves or denies requests for sick leave bank withdrawals.

J.D. Van Sickle and his wife learned the results of their request late Tuesday — just in time, he said, for the couple to proceed with their transplant surgeries. "I am in stage-four kidney failure," said J.D. Van Sickle. "It's urgent to me, because the use of my kidneys is dwindling every day. I've had the condition between 10 and 15 years. [Now,] I have maybe 16 percent of the use of my kidneys."

J.D. Van Sickle acknowledged that the couple, married since 1974, has survived its share of illnesses. He said his wife overcame uterine cancer two-and-a-half years ago. Most recently, she suffered a bout with a urinary tract infection. He said her condition stalled the effort to have kidney transplant surgery over the summer months.

"From our perspective, being a kidney donor is urgent for us," he said. "She's willing to donate a kidney to save my life."

J.D. Van Sickle is a retired U.S. Navy Commander. He served in the military for 20 years. He later taught video broadcasting and technology courses, for 11 years, at Patrick Henry High School, in Stockbridge.

Keri Van Sickle, who has worked for the Henry County School System since 1989, plans to work up until the day she is prepped for surgery. She said she is relieved knowing the process of requesting additional sick leave has ended in her favor.

"I'm just so grateful it's over," she said. "It ended well. My husband's probably the nicest man God ever put on earth. I like him better today than I did the day I married him."