‘A lot of life left to live.’ UK alumnus and mother searches for new kidney


Emily Girard

The Facebook page has been up since April 26.

Sarah Zopfi’s sister-in-law, Lindsay Zopfi, set it up with a straightforward title: “Sarah Needs a Kidney.” The description is even more to the point, briefing the UK alumnus’s situation in a few sentences, trying not to lose the attention of casual scrollers.

Important details are highlighted in all caps, as if this were a matter of life and death. Because it is.

“Sarah’s kidneys [are] failing and she is seeking a living donor,” the page reads. “Type O/non smoker/general good health. If you feel you can help, please call the Living Donor Center at the University of Kentucky on behalf of SARAH ZOPFI at 859-323-2467.”

As of May 18, the page has 102 likes and 104 followers. A significant number, but it could always use more. Her story needed to be told, and it needed to be told firsthand.

She logged on to the Zoom meeting under her son’s name. There was confusion, then understanding, then laughter, then hesitation.

How do you ask someone to tell the story of their rapidly declining health?

But Zopfi, a 41-year-old retired health reporter and teacher, jumped right in. She said she wanted people to know what it’s like to be in her situation.

“I’m a journalist myself,” she said. “I don’t mind sharing my story.”

Zopfi has end-stage renal disease, meaning her kidneys are functioning at under 15% of their normal capacity.

Given that the kidneys are essential to survival, filtering waste products like acids and extra fluid from blood, this reduced function has taken a toll on the rest of her body.

Fluid has built up in Zopfi’s body, causing pain in her joints and legs. There are permanent bags under her eyes.

In the past few months, she has developed brain fog. The toxins that her kidneys cannot filter have caused interruptions in her brain, causing her to lose her train of thought mid-sentence.

“It’s the craziest thing, because five months ago, I wasn’t having that issue,” she said. “It’s a pretty miserable situation to be in.”

The disease is a complication of type 1 diabetes, which she was diagnosed with at 19. The condition was formerly called juvenile diabetes, because most people with it find out that their pancreas cannot produce insulin when they are children.

Zopfi explained that she carried the gene that predisposes people to diabetes from the time she was born, but often, it takes time for the disease to “switch on.”

Her endocrinologist theorized that that switch came when Zopfi was 18, when, in an effort to fight off a stomach virus, her body attacked itself, killing the insulin-producing beta cells in her pancreas and causing her to develop diabetes.

According to the CDC, diabetes is one of the leading causes of kidney failure in the United States. Zopfi is no exception.

“It’s a complication that a lot of diabetics face later in life. However, I had diabetes diagnosed when I was 19, so I’m having these complications rather early,” Zopfi said. “Ten years ago, I got diagnosed with kidney disease, and it’s taken about that long for my kidneys to fail.”

When Zopfi found out she had entered end-stage renal disease, she said her heart dropped in fear.

“It was a physical feeling of, oh my God, panic, because this is really happening. I can’t believe this is happening,” she said.

That initial shock has stayed with her.

“Sometimes I sit here and think, ‘Wow, my kidneys are not working,’” she said.

Another major source of stress is Zopfi’s backup plan.

If she does not find a kidney donor soon, she will go on dialysis, a medical process where the whole body’s blood supply is extracted, externally filtered, then re-introduced, three times a week.

It does the job of the kidneys artificially, but it is not a cure.

“I’m so scared of dialysis, you know? I know a lot of people are on it, and they’re trudging through. They’re my heroes, the people who have really been dealing with this for years, but I don’t have years,” Zopfi said. “My body is broken down from the years of diabetes. It’s taken a beating. So I really want to find this living donor match so that I can continue to live my life and raise my son. I feel like I still have some stuff to offer the world.”

Zopfi is looking for a living kidney donor, as organs taken from deceased donors typically do not last as long.

She explained that the donation process would consist of evaluations and blood tests, followed by a minor surgery that is completely covered by her insurance. Recovery typically takes one to three days, depending on the patient.

“It’s a pretty quick turnaround,” she said. “They wouldn’t have to miss a ton of work.”

Though Zopfi knows that people can live a relatively normal life with one kidney, she still understands the gravity of her ask.

“It’s giving you part of their body … That is huge, and I cannot fully express the gratitude that I would feel for someone doing that for me. It’s hard to talk about that without getting emotional,” she said, tearing up “I understand how hard it is to make that type of decision. I know that if I were in their shoes, it had to be something I thought about, but I do feel like my person is out there. You know, the right person, the right match.”

Zopfi has not yet found her donor, the unspecified person she called her hero. Still, she is making plans for when she does get her health back on track.

“In college, I had a band. We didn’t really play in bars, but we played music together, and I still enjoy playing music,” she said. “It’s something I’d like to get back to when I get healthier – getting back to playing with people, playing out and singing in a band. That’s just one of my goals.”

However, the most important thing she wants to live for is her family.

She and her husband, Travis Hubbard, have been together for over 20 years. They met when they were both working at the Kentucky Kernel, her being the features editor and him being the sports editor.

“I just absolutely loved working with the Kernel. I met some of my best friends there,” she said. “We all lived together and hung out, and some of us dated. I mean, it was crazy, but it was fun. It was so much fun. We had a good time.”

Zopfi also has a son, Holden Hubbard. He is featured heavily on the “Sarah Needs a Kidney” Facebook page. A photo of Sarah holding Holden on the beach is captioned, “I need a kidney … for more days like this.”

Another post, featuring an infant Holden, reads, “From the first moment I held him, I knew he was made for me. Can you be the person who helps me live to make more memories with my son?”

And another: “I can’t explain the pain I feel not being able to be the best Mom I could be to my sweet Holden.” As his mother explained her life-threatening condition and the limited time she has left, Holden walked around in the background of the video feed.

“The main reason I want to live – I mean, I really want to say this, direct quote – is for my child. I want to see him grow up. I want to grow old with my husband,” she said. “I’m only 41 years old. There’s just a lot of life left to live, and there’s a lot of things that you know, I want to do and try to make a difference and continue to … help young children grow, like be with my niece and nephew. Be with my friends and family. I feel like I’m not done yet. I want to live.”

The University of Kentucky Transplant Center can be reached at 859-323-2467.