MAXWELL — Little did Alex Gurciullo and Rebekah Daniels know when they became best friends in college that their friendship would save Alex’s life.
Alex, 24, and Rebekah already considered themselves family, but after Rebekah’s mom, Kristi Daniels, shared part of her liver so Alex could live, that bond became even tighter. The disease she had required a transplant, and through what they consider a miracle, Kristi was a perfect match.
Family, Career and Community Leaders of America students Elio Nila, Ryan Butler and Levi Huffman, along with the Maxwell Volunteer Fire Department, are hosting a fundraiser for Alex from 4-9 p.m. Tuesday at Maxwell School.
In 2015. Alex was diagnosed with a rare liver disease, primary sclerosing cholangitis or PSC, which is not genetic. Alex is currently in the hospital in Omaha due to an infection, but spoke via Facetime.
“They’re not sure where it comes from,” Alex said. “Then in 2018, they check my blood every six months and in one year my cancer antigen had jumped from 18 to 38.”
The doctors dug deeper and Alex was diagnosed with cancer in the bile ducts of the liver.
“I was diagnosed Oct. 15, then started looking into transplant options, because if they were to cure the cancer, it would just come back more aggressively,” Alex said.
The transplant had to be from a live donor.
“So my best friend’s mom got evaluated — she was the first one,” Alex said. “She was a match and I guess that doesn’t happen very often.”
When Kristi told Alex she wanted to be evaluated, Alex told her she would not ask her to be her donor. The entire Daniels family was the same blood type as Alex.
“The entire family treats me like I’m part of their family from even beforehand,” Alex said. “When she was found to be a match, I told her, you don’t have to do this. You have your own family to think about, too. She said, ‘Alex, you are my family, I’m doing this.’”
Kristi said when they found out about the cancer, the Daniels family wanted to do whatever they could to help.
“One of the things was to find out if we could be a living liver donor,” Kristi said. “With a lot of family talking and praying, it turned out that I was a perfect match.”
She said the process seemed to take forever, but then Kristi received a phone call.
“April 11 the hospital called me,” Kristi said. “We were getting a really bad snowstorm when the hospital called. My transplant coordinator said, ‘Kristi, I have amazing news — you are a match,’ and then I lost power (due to the storm).”
Kristi and her family knew it was the right decision for her.
“My husband, Shane, and I have four girls, and I think visiting with all of them and praying about it, we just felt at peace with the whole process and making that decision,” Kristi said. “So right off the bat, there wasn’t any, ‘well, are you sure?’ We just talked about it and prayed about it and didn’t even question it really.”
Two FCCLA members, Nila and Butler, shared the reasons they selected Alex for their project.
Originally they had planned to do a project for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Nila said. “But we felt like we wanted to do something within our community. We heard about (Alex) and we really wanted to do as much as we could to help.”
“The Fire Department came to us and said they wanted to do a soup supper for (Alex),” Butler said. “So we just took it and ran with it pretty much.”
It’s been a long process, said Alex’s aunt Gina Sommer, who is also the school nurse at Maxwell.
“I’ve been a nurse for about 25 years and it’s been amazing and I’m in awe of it all,” Sommers said.
She said all of Alex’s family offered to be tested.
“We all put our name in the hat,” Sommer said. “After all, she is my 24-year-old niece and I wasn’t going to let her go without somebody doing something. We all would have given her a liver, but this worked out wonderful.”
Grandpa Terry Gurciullo Sr. said he is very grateful.
“My biggest feelings are with Kristi Daniels,” he said, “because without her — I believe the Lord brought her to us.”
Alex’s brother Tate, a senior at Maxwell High School, recalled the day he was told about the diagnosis.
“I was standing in the living room and my mom was telling me Alex had cancer of the liver,” he said. “I just couldn’t stand up anymore.”
When Alex was going into surgery for the transplant, Tate said, he knew just about anything could happen.
“That scared me when I had to give her a hug and say goodbye, because things happen,” Tate said. “You don’t want them to, you don’t want to think about it, but that’s just how the world works.”
He said he has just been grateful to the Daniels family.
“Alex and I always kind of had our arguments, but after a while we learned that we really need each other,” Tate said. “She knew I was always going to be there for her and I knew she was always going to be there for me. I’ve just been grateful that she’s still here and I can pick on her a little bit.”
The transplant took place in May. Since then, Alex said, there were difficult times, but God has helped her through.
“I pray every day,” Alex said. “There was a time when I wanted to give up. I had infections, I’d lost weight, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t drink anything.
“I told God, just take me now, I’m ready. But I just had this turning point and I just kept going. It was my faith that got me through a lot of it and Kristi’s faith too.”