When Krystal Valianti needed a second kidney transplant in seven years, her mother’s childhood friend and high-school classmate, Janet LaBar, stepped in to help.
By Matt Skoufalos | October 11, 2023
According to the U.S. Academy of Sciences, more than 100,000 Americans a year need a kidney transplant.
Fewer than 20 percent of them are fortunate enough to receive it.
For the second time in seven years, however, 30-year-old Krystal Valianti of Oaklyn is among that lucky 20 percent.
In December 2022, Valianti, a preschool teacher in Woodlynne, was diagnosed with IgA nephropathy, a chronic condition that can lead to kidney failure.
At the time, she was fortunate enough to find a matching donor: her sister, Nicole Valianti.
But a donated kidney doesn’t last forever — maybe 12 to 20 years in a young recipient, according to the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. And when Krystal’s condition began to worsen last year, she once again became a transplant candidate
So in January 2023, after word got around the Borough of Oaklyn offices that Krystal was seeking a kidney donor, administrative assistant Janet LaBar decided to see if she would be a match.
“I had had my appendix out the previous year, so they knew I was a match, and my blood type matched,” LaBar said.
“It was so clear that I was meant to do it.”
While she waited to find a matching donor from about 15 potential candidates, Krystal began undergoing dialysis to alleviate the symptoms of her kidney disease in April.
Her dad, Michael, was “the dialysis king,” Nicole said, helping Krystal prepare for the work of monitoring and maintaining her health. But her condition left Krystal unable to do much more than conserve her strength.
“Before the transplant, I was exhausted,” she said. “I was swollen. I would just sleep all day; I was drained.”
Meanwhile, as LaBar went through the extensive vetting process to see whether she would be a match for Krystal, Oaklyn Borough Administrator Bonnie Taft facilitated her path to the organ transplant process. The borough council, on which Krystal and Nicole’s mother Dorothy serves, fully supported her decision as well.
“When I came to [Taft] in January, she said, ‘I will back you,’” LaBar said. “Every doctor’s appointment, every test, she covered me at work.”
LaBar also benefited from the 2019 passage of New Jersey’s “Lindsay’s Law,” which provides additional paid leave for any state employee donating bone marrow or an organ.
“The number one people don’t donate is because of financial reasons,” LaBar said.
“Lindsay’s Law offered me the time off without disability, and our mayor and council supported that.
“My work and financial [stability] was never an issue.
“My family, yes they were scared, they had concerns, but they stuck by me, and I wouldn’t be able to do it without them,” she said.
Finally, on August 9, the duo underwent their transplant surgeries. Within weeks, they were improving steadily, and on October 10, they appeared together at the Oaklyn Borough Council meeting.
There, LaBar — the 2003 Oaklyn Volunteer of the Year — was formally recognized for her efforts by Camden County Commissioner-Director Louis Cappelli, Jr., her fellow Collingswood High School graduate.
“From that class, a lot of tremendous friendships have been formed,” Cappelli, Jr. said. “Through the years, we’ve all been there to support each other.”
Dorothy Valianti welled up as she thanked her high-school friend for the gift she’d given to her daughter.
“There was a lot of nights I was at her house crying,” Dorothy said. “[Janet] stood by my side and said, ‘We’ll get through this together.’”
Krystal, who had “One Kidney Club” t-shirts made for herself, her sister, and LaBar, said the gratitude she felt after a second organ donation was even more intense than the first.
“The first time around it was a big gift because it was my sister,” she said. “When it’s someone from outside the family, you can’t thank them enough.”
Her father, Michael, echoed the sentiment.
“We needed our confidence built that [Janet] was all in,” he said. “She’s got three beautiful kids and grandchildren. You can’t express the kindness and the generosity and the gift she gave my daughter.”
Nicole Valianti urged other potential organ donors to see whether they might be a match for someone in need. In the process of discovering whether she was a match for Krystal, LaBar fixed her mind on donating a kidney to someone either way.
But to be able to help a longtime friend in the process was the kind of thing that seldom happens outside of a tight-knit community like Oaklyn.
“Dot and I were fortunate enough to grow up in a town and graduate high school together along with Lou and all these wonderful people back there,” LaBar said.
“Growing up in a small town is something else,” she said. “We have a connection that we can’t even express.
“We’re friends that have become family forever.”
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