A unique Wheaton connection

A lifesaving journey of friendship and gratitude

Zelda Zhao ’18 needed a kidney.

Zelda Zhao ’18 had a lifesaving kidney transplant in Cincinnati, thanks to Emily Conklin ’13.

Last year, as I was making plans to come to Reunion, my life took an unexpected turn when I was suddenly admitted to the emergency room and hospitalized in April 2023. At the age of 26, I received a devastating diagnosis of end-stage kidney failures and stage 5 anemia, accompanied by dangerously high blood pressure. I was told that without dialysis or a kidney transplant, I had approximately six months to one year left to live. After the diagnosis I lost my job, medical insurance and work visa in the following month.

I was overwhelmed by the situation, struggling to understand why this cruel twist of fate had befallen me when I had poured all my efforts into building a life as an immigrant in this country in the past 10 years.

I did not know if I would be able to survive. I didn’t know what to expect. I was ordered to start dialysis right away. At the same time, my doctors encouraged me to look for a live kidney donation as there are hundreds of thousands of people waiting for a kidney in the country, and that waiting could take more than five to 10 years.

Asking someone to donate a healthy kidney felt like an immense and impossible request to me—a far-fetched dream.

Yet, when I shared the news with my friends who then spread it across the Wheaton community and social media, I was shocked and surprised to see that people were willing to consider a donation! It felt as if the universe had decided to show me the boundless capacity of human kindness.

Each offer, each selfless gesture, touched the deepest recesses of my soul, reminding me that amidst life’s trials, there exists an abundance of love and generosity. Among the names of people who were interested in donating a kidney, both familiar and unfamiliar, was Emily Conklin ’13.

Emily and I had never met on Wheaton’s campus because she graduated before I arrived. She told me that “I’m so glad I get to help, and I am excited to have the opportunity to be brave for you.” I was filled with overwhelming gratitude and hope. I couldn’t believe that Emily, a friend who I had never met face-to-face before, would do something so selfless and altruistic to save my life!

Though we didn’t know each other, Emily offered me the most precious gift I could ever receive —the gift of life. Her kind gesture was a rainbow after a crazy storm and a reminder that miracles do happen.

That brings us to Valentine’s Day this year when I had surgery. The journey of Emily’s kidney from Boston to Cincinnati, where I underwent a successful life-saving transplant, is a testament to the far-reaching impact of our Wheaton connections. Wheaton is a community built on the values of empathy, kindness and selflessness. I look forward to meeting Emily in person and visiting the campus after I recover. Go Wheaties!

—By Zelda Zhao ’18, economics and French double major

Emily Conklin ’13 gave her one.

Emily Conkln ’13
Emily Conkln ’13 had surgery in Boston to donate her kidney to Zelda Zhao ’18.

When I was at Wheaton, I spent much of February practicing and performing singing Valograms with my fellow Wheatones. I’ve never cared much for Valentine’s Day, but delivering the gift of song to students’ loved ones was always a joyful highlight. This year, Valentine’s Day took on a new meaning when I had the honor of becoming a kidney donor to another Wheatie.

Last summer, I learned via Instagram that Zelda Zhao ’18 was in renal failure and had been given a dim prognosis without a transplant.

Though Zelda and I had never met, I wanted to see if there was a way for me to provide help in her time of need. I couldn’t provide financial support for her care, but I could explore the donation process. With Zelda’s help, I connected with her care team to start the match testing process.

After sending my blood via FedEx to Ohio (very weird), I found out I was a match (even weirder). From that point through November 2023, I went through more medical testing than I thought possible. Through the National Kidney Registry, I was connected to the transplant team at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, where I underwent all testing and informational appointments.

Being a match wasn’t enough; the medical team provided me with the intricate assessment necessary to determine whether donation was the right path for me. When I was finally cleared for surgery it was a lot to process, but in some ways I think I always knew what my decision would be—which brought us to Feb. 14, 2024.

I’ve done a lot of scary, difficult, emotional things in my life. This probably tops that list for me now. Though it has only been a short time, with both of us recovering nicely, I feel confident in saying it was totally worth it. My life should be functionally unchanged, but Zelda’s lease on hers has been renewed. I don’t quite have the words to say how humbling, fulfilling and honestly strange it is to give that gift to someone. I am honored to play a part in Zelda’s health and recovery.

Donation is a milestone I want to share, but this isn’t just my story. It’s the story of the power of community. Our Wheaton connection helped make this happen, and I’m so grateful Zelda and I had that. I could never have imagined when I walked onto the Wheaton campus that first day of freshman year the depth of the connections it would bring to my life. From my Wheatone sisters to my new kidney sister, I am grateful for all the relationships Wheaton has brought me.

—By Emily Conklin ’13, biology and French studies major; program manager at Sailors for the Sea Powered by Oceana in Newport, R.I.