Fellow Hokie Gives Kidney and Fulfills Her Lifelong Dream.

by | Dec 2023

LITTLE GIRLS often dream of becoming famous actresses, veterinarians, or fairy princesses. But Annie Chalmers-Williams dreamt of giving someone her kidney. “Growing up, I had a friend who desperately needed an organ to live,” said Chalmers- Williams. “I saw what was happening to her and her health as she declined. I remember thinking, ‘Why doesn’t anyone help her?’ It has been on my heart ever since. Over the years, I would see people asking for a living kidney donor, and I would always think, ‘I need to do that someday.’” 

During the summer of 2021, Chalmers-Williams and her husband, Travis, endured their third miscarriage. Heartbroken, they made the painful decision to accept their son, Dawson, would be their only biological child, and this opened the door for Annie to pray about donating her kidney. “It sounded like a perfect way to give life the only way I could.” 

It wasn’t long before Annie came across the Facebook post of Yang Zhang, who desperately needed a kidney. “When I made the post in January 2022, I was not sure what to expect, and frankly, I was not hopeful because asking someone to donate an organ is a very big ask,” recalls Zhang. Annie was one of 33 people who reached out. “Her first email was very personal and very touching. She talked about prior life challenges, her faith, and how that faith guided her to help me. In October, Annie told me she had completed the screening process and was identified as a matching donor. She asked for a meeting with my family. Deep down, my wife and I had not believed this would ever happen. But it did.”

Although Annie is the assistant director of substance misuse prevention for Hokie Wellness at Virginia Tech (VT), she and Zhang had never previously crossed paths. “I looked at their family photo on Facebook and zoomed in on his daughters’ little faces. I saw the way he and his wife, Amy, had their arms around each other, and I heard a voice inside me say, ‘There’s your person.’”

Zhang said life before the transplant was a challenge. Everything changed, including his daily routine. As an associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech, the rigorous eight hours needed for home dialysis halted his full-time, in-person work and brought traveling to a complete stop. Zhang said it took a toll on his mental health. “When your perspective on life turns bleak, it becomes very easy to fall prey to negative emotions. It is very important to lean on your family, friends, and your community. Stay engaged as much as possible.”

Before his kidney failure, Zhang had received impressive research grants from the United States National Science Foundation, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, and the Virginia Sea Grant. He is also a founding member of the VT interdisciplinary graduate program in Disaster Resilience. “I have won the Virginia Chapter of the American Planning Association Best Educator Award and the VT College of Architecture and Urban Studies’ Ut Prosim Award.”

From the beginning, Annie said her husband supported her decision, but it was difficult for her parents. “At the pre-op appointment, Zhang told my mom she had an amazing daughter. I think those words helped move my mom to a place of peace with the surgery.” Zhang experienced fears of his own. “The easiest part was the surgery. The most challenging aspect was my constant anxiety about the well-being of Annie.”

“I just love to help and care for others,” said Annie. “I never want anyone to feel alone, afraid, or left out. I always think there are ways to help, and there is always room to grow. The world is sometimes really frightening and full of terrible things, but it’s also incredibly beautiful, and I’m always awed by it. If I can do something to ease someone’s suffering, even if it’s something small, I want to know about it and do it. That’s the only way that things really get better — people have to put action behind their thoughts and words.” 

Now that surgery is behind them, Zhang said, “My goals for the future are twofold. One is to take the best possible care of the kidney that Annie gave me. The other is to make the best of my life, professionally and personally. This is the best I can do to honor Annie’s grace and generosity.” GN 

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