School lunch lady saves janitor’s life with kidney donation

School lunch lady saves janitor’s life with kidney donation
Steve Riggs and Jeanine Barker work together at John Paul II Academy. (Source: Jeanine Barker)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - At John Paul II Academy, Steve Riggs is a janitor, but this week, at a hospital in Cincinnati, he's been a patient.

"Oh, my god, I mean it was devastating," Sharon Cullop, Riggs' sister-in-law, said.

Last year, he went into kidney failure. His family made t-shirts and held fundraisers, scrambling to find an organ donor match to save his life. ​

"I have actually talked at the grocery store line, like I was told to do, trying to find a kidney," Susan Stout, Riggs' other sister-in-law, said.

Along with family members, Leigh Ann Saylor lent expert advice to Riggs and those close to him, inviting them to participate in a support group run by Mulligans Living Kidney Donors. She started the support group eight years ago when her husband needed a kidney.

The group now meets at St. Margret Mary Catholic Church once a month.

"How do you ask somebody for a body part?" Saylor asked, repeating the advice she lent Riggs. "It's not like saying, ‘Can I borrow your lawnmower?’"​

As the search went on, Riggs found another friend who said she never would've known what he was facing.

​"I worked with him all this time," Jeanine Barker said. "I had no clue." ​

That's when Barker, who works in the school cafeteria, decided to see if she could help save her friend's life. ​

"Steve was actually getting the school prepared for the first day of school when I was able to tell him that I was a perfect match," Barker said.

From there, the two underwent test after test to ensure their bodies would be healthy enough for a transplant.

"If she was not going to match at the next level, then she was going to give to somebody else so Steve would bump up," Stout said.

Monday, ahead of the surgery, the transplant depended on one last medical check. ​

"She gave the thumbs up. I'm running out there, ‘It's a go, it's a go,’" Stout said, describing the moment the transplant was given final approval this week.

"She just saved his life," Saylor said.

The two are recovering well.

While Barker may be down a kidney, she's gained a lot of love from people who were once strangers who now call her family. ​

“I think about everyone having two kidneys, and we’re hoarding,” Barker said. “We are hoarding. If everybody could just give a kidney.”​

Riggs' family said a big post-op highlight for him is now being able to eat banana pudding, thanks to his new kidney.

"She gave a kidney to provide life," Stout said. "You couldn't ask for something more precious or a nice gift like that."

Riggs’ in-laws say he’s doing well and already walking after the surgery.

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