If a friend or relative needed one of your kidneys, would you give it to them? Sheri Burgess didn't need to think twice when twin brother Sotunji was diagnosed with renal failure. The older by two minutes, she'd always been his protector. Donating a kidney she says was a "no brainer."

"I'd do anything to help my brother. He'd do it for me," she said.

The twins' story began three years ago and highlights the need for more living donors. Right now 85 people are receiving dialysis and 24 are on the transplant list.

Sotunji had been hospitalized for what he thought was a sickle cell-related illness. He couldn't believe it when doctors said he needed a new kidney. Before that he didn't even know what the kidneys were for. He said: "They basically told me if I didn't start dialysis I was going to die."

Sotunji was 22 and studying liberal arts with a focus on law at Bermuda College. Sickle cell disease had already drained him of some of his energy, but that was nothing compared to what dialysis was going to do.

Meanwhile sister Sheri had just started beauty school in North Carolina and for the most part was out of the loop.

She said: "I really didn't know about the kidney failure at all. When I talked to the family they said he was taking shots to see if it could be slowed down, but nobody had really come to me and said Jonathan [the name his parents gave him] has this and this and this."

Eventually though, he had to start dialysis. "I started off going two times a week then three times a week for three and a half hours at a time," he said.

The young man hated the routine. It left him feeling tired and drained. Before long KEMH renal transplant coordinator Marianne Herbert was contacting Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and Johns Hopkins in Baltimore to get his name on the donor list.

Sotunji said: "It was serious. I knew I had to have a transplant or I wasn't going to live much longer."

Race against time

Bermuda has well-established relations with both hospitals as well as the New England Organ Bank. Nearly 80 people here have had transplants since 1972. Today there are about 30 people who have working kidney transplants.

In December 2003, Brigham asked Sotunji's sister for some blood to see if she could be a match. She still wasn't fully aware of the seriousness of her brother's condition. But she complied and sent them what they asked for.

She said: "I only found out he was on dialysis when I came back to the island in 2004. It was saddening to see him hooked up to the machine. He was tired all the time. His friends would call and I'd have to tell them he was sleeping."

No one had approached Sheri yet about donating a kidney, but it had been rattling around in her brother's mind for a while. The idea was finally put on the table in October last year.

Sheri said: "My mom and brother came to me and said that it wasn't going too well and that they were talking more about live donors. That's when they gave me DVDs and papers and information about live donations."

Sheri said she was "rational" and "open-minded" about the proposition and sent more blood off to Johns Hopkins. "Even then it still wasn't really a big deal to me. I was like, okay, whatever," she says.

The twins ended up going to hospital in Baltimore in January this year for more tests and talks with doctors and surgeons. "We went off for three days in January and came back. Then in February they said my sister was looking good for a transplant," Sotunji said.

He went for pre-surgery tests again later in the month, which is when the doctors decided they may as well do the actual transplant, too — much to the surprise of his sister who had to drop everything she was doing, leave her job at Eden, and fly out to Baltimore. But she'd been well prepped.

She said: "In January, when it looked like it was really gong to happen, there was a lot of apprehension. I was asking the surgeon a whole lot of questions; they even sent me to a psychiatrist. But I let them know there was no turning back." Doctors told her lots of people live healthy lives with one kidney and that it wouldn't affect her chances of having children.

She continued: "I wanted to be my brother's donor. Just knowing I could do something for him and go back to the old days when we used to do stuff together. I was scared, but it was a no-brainer because he would have done the same thing for me."

Sotunji said: "I was like, she doesn't have to do it. I hope she does it, but I didn't want to pressure her. It's a hard decision for anyone to make."

Sheri was in surgery for four hours, her brother for two and half. He said he noticed a difference straight away. Sheri did, too. She woke up in pain which doctors numbed with oxycotin — but within a couple of weeks it was like the surgery had never happened.

Sotunji returned to the island in May. He has to take about 30 pills a day and will be under close observation for the next six months before he's out of the danger zone.

The twins' mom, Cheryl, a housekeeper at the hospital, said she wasn't at all surprised by her daughter's willingness to help her brother. "They were very close growing up. She was taller than him and always very protective."

The twins hope their story will encourage others to join the donor list. "If you can save somebody's life, just do it," Sheri said.

For more information contact the Dialysis Unit on 236-6015.