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Through organ donation, Ashleigh Flanery’s life-changing gift helped Lacey Schollenberger become an MSU graduate

Lacey and Ashley Graduation PicWhen Morehead State University hosted its Fall 2021 Commencement Ceremony last year, Ashleigh Flanery (Class of 2009) supported her close friend Lacey Schollenberger (Class of 2021). When Lacey walked on stage to receive her bachelor's degree, part of Ashleigh was on that stage with her – a life-changing and life-saving part.   

In 2019, Ashleigh underwent an organ transplant procedure to donate one of her kidneys to Lacey, helping correct a long history of health conditions and allowing this moment -- and the possibility of an everyday, healthy life -- to become a reality.  

A Comfortable Connection  

Lacey came to MSU because she fell in love with the campus and it was close to her home of Proctorville, Ohio. A native of Sandy Hook, Ashleigh enrolled at MSU for similar reasons, along receiving the Alumni Scholarship and following in the footsteps of her sister Kara Given (Class of 2009), mother Kristen Howard-Flanery (Class of 1989), and grandmother Janie Mustari (Class of 1971, 1977). Both enrolled at MSU with friends from home (Ashleigh with LaVonnie Conley and Lacey with Brittani McCormick, Class of 2008). They all connected at MSU's Annual Ice Cream Social that kicked off the fall semester in 2004.  

"It was just a relatable feeling whenever we came up to them. They just made us feel comfortable," Lacey said.   

All four friends would eventually go to sorority recruitment together. Lacey, Ashleigh and LaVonnie ended up in the same pledge class for Delta Zeta Sorority and later became roommates, living on the Delta Zeta floor of Nunn Hall their sophomore year. It was then that Ashleigh would learn of the many challenges Lacey faced.  

"The Hair Loss Was Insane To See"  

Lacey was diagnosed with lupus in July 2001 at the age of 14. A kidney test later revealed she was already in stage three renal failure, resulting in an inability to filter waste products in her bloodstream. By the time she was a student at MSU, Lacey had already undergone chemotherapy treatments to combat the disease and developed a distancing nature when it came to close friendships because of all the precautions she takes due to her illness.  

"I am aware of how much of a liability I am on a daily basis," she said. "You kind of pull yourself away so you don't hurt people, but then you have those people who care and continue to care to make sure you aren't pulling yourself away and make sure you are OK."  

Ashleigh remembers Lacey going from looking like a healthy college student her first year on campus to someone who looked like getting through the day, let alone college classes, was a constant physical battle. The lupus flare-ups would result in arthritis, inflammation, headaches, mouth sores and hives that could be triggered by stress from school or something as simple as UV-ray exposure from too much time in the sun. The chemo she was on to suppress her renal disease caused her to lose most of her hair, which meant wearing wigs before deciding to ditch them entirely.  

"We all shared a bathroom, and you could literally grab handfuls of hair off the rug and in the bathroom. The hair loss was insane to see," Ashleigh said. "It was just a big reality check to see someone your own age going through so many things on that level."  

"She saw nights of just being in the bathroom puking and some people think it's alcohol but for me, it's the treatments," Lacey said.   

While Ashleigh, Lacey and LaVonnie went on to live in separate places after their sophomore year, Ashleigh being there during some of Lacey's most challenging health complications created an unbreakable bond. While they continued to grow their friendship, Lacey's health problems were not getting any better.  

From Bad to Worse  

Lacey thought that despite her lupus and the side effects of treatments, she and Ashleigh would end up graduating together. But while Ashleigh went on to graduate with a bachelor's degree in kinesiology and exercise science in 2009, Lacey ended up having to withdraw from MSU her senior year, a decision that gave her a "sense of failure."  

Lacey held many part-time jobs after her withdrawal from MSU, another way she was determined to push forward and live an everyday life despite her circumstances. She worked in retail, restaurants, a nursing home, various hotels and a gas station. But because of the severity of her health problems, she would never hold a job for very long due to missing work frequently or for long stretches because of her poor health.  

"I've never gone to the emergency room and been able to leave (the same day)," she said.  

During her time away from MSU, she signed up for disability assistance in 2012, which helped sustain her financially. However, the severity of her disease only got worse and led to some harrowing occurrences and risky surgeries.   

She was put in a medically induced coma for nine days in 2012 after doctors discovered she was bleeding internally from her abdomen. Two years later, she was under the knife for her first open-heart surgery, replacing a leaky and damaged aortic valve with a pig heart valve in 2014. A year later, she went on dialysis and ended up in the hospital for five days due to high blood pressure, but that didn't stop her from taking her dialysis machine with her on vacation to places to Florida and Asheville, North Carolina, hooking up to it at the end of a long day.  

"I always told people I'm just powering up," she said.  

While Lacey may have gone through losing her hair or the ability to establish a savings account due to all her medical expenses, she rarely lost her positive attitude or her sense of humor.  

"You have to keep it," she said about the ability to laugh at her health conditions. "You sometimes have to laugh at situations when you find yourself in them because it's this real life?"   

Lacey and Ashley Kidney Announcement PicAn Incomparable Gift  

Throughout all of Lacey's health struggles, Ashleigh tried to be there for her friend in any way she could. Despite not living in the same city, they saw each other a couple of times a year and contacted each other weekly. When Lacey ended up in the Intensive Care Unit in Lexington due to blood pressure issues, Ashleigh drove from Huntington, West Virginia, to stay overnight with her near her hospital bed. Through her worsening health, the dialysis, the surgeries, they both knew what was happening. Her kidneys were eventually going to shut down.   

"Her fear was, life is over, I'm dying," Ashleigh said. "That's when I said, hey, if you ever get to that point, I'll give you my kidney."  

In 2016, Lacey and Ashleigh went through a more than two-year process that eventually led to kidney transplant surgery. During that time, Lacey had an additional open-heart surgery to replace her pig aortic valve with a stronger bovine valve in 2018 and she received counseling to prepare her for multiple possibilities, whether it be Ashleigh backing out of the transplant surgery at the last minute or her body rejecting Ashleigh's kidney altogether. Lacey moved to Lexington for the procedure to be close to Ashleigh and her mother in Aug. 2018. Meanwhile, Ashleigh was dealing with pushback from her parents and family, concerned about her putting her health at risk and the potential of leaving her son Easton (then 11) without a mother.  

When the surgery date was confirmed, Lacey and Ashleigh used a whiteboard to reveal to their closest friend’s and Lacey’s mother at Thanksgiving similar to how a couple would make a pregnancy announcement. The sign said, "Kidney Coming: 1-29-2019."  

"Her and her mother are literally putting me on a pedestal for things, and I'm like 'Thank you, but you don't have to do that,'" Ashleigh said. "She just needed somebody willing, and that was me."  

A Good and Bad Day  

Leading up to the kidney transplant, Lacey had another person on her mind besides herself and her best friend. Her father, Thomas Schollenberger, was in the hospital and days leading up to her surgery, it looked like he wasn't going to make it.   

"I thought he was going to be dying that day," Lacey said after visiting him. "That wasn't him in that bed. That wasn't him in that brain."   

Lacey ran her dialysis machine one more time before her transplant surgery, which turned out to be the last time. The entire procedure was a success and worth celebrating. But while Schollenberger was undergoing the transplant, her father passed away.  

"When I woke up, I had to get through some trauma," Lacey said. "I was trying to get on the internet. Nobody wanted to give me my phone."  

A Recovery and a Return  

Once she grieved the passing of her father and recovered from the surgery. Lacey's life was different. Quite different.  

To say that Lacey's life changed for the better after her kidney transplant would be an understatement. While she still takes medications for her lupus and to ensure her body doesn't reject Ashleigh's kidney, she leads a healthy life. She went from relying on a dialysis machine and frequent hospital visits to completing a 5K walk/run with Ashleigh to raise awareness for organ donation three months after she came out of surgery.  

"We got there and we're like, let's just walk the trail. And we walked the trail, and we completed the whole 5K and we were like, 'wow, we just did that,'" Ashleigh said.  

"It was then that I felt I was getting stronger. It was then I did two miles. It was then I was like, 'OK, I just did that. Now I can do things,'" Lacey said.  

Later that summer, Lacey decided to do one more thing: Return to Morehead State to finish what she started and earn a college degree.  

"It just didn't feel right to have to start over somewhere. I have such fond memories of Morehead and I love the little town and the school," she said. "I had to close that door. I had to end it there. I had to have that pride I deserved to have and the work that I had done. I had to bring it back around and have that complete chapter shut."  

Lacey re-enrolled at MSU in the Winter Session of 2019 with different results than she had when fighting an uphill battle with her health years ago.  

"I was getting grades I was never able to get before. I was getting 4.0's because I had the mental headspace," she said. "My body (back then) didn't want to read chapters. My body didn't want to look at a computer screen. My body didn't want to go to class."  

A Walk to Remember  

Lacey and Ashley Kidney-versary PicLacey was on the floor for MSU's Fall 2021 Commencement Ceremony anticipating a long-awaited walk on stage to accept her Bachelor of Arts in Strategic Communications. She felt nervous but also alone. She wasn't graduating with any of her classmates when she first enrolled at MSU. Luckily, she did have someone close to her.  

Lacey was using her watch to send text messages to Ashleigh, who was watching in the stands of the Academic-Athletic Center to express her excitement and get some moral support for a moment she suspected would never happen.  

"It goes back to this being symbiotic. We would have been able to graduate together if I was able to do this," Lacey said. "That is the only person in that room that I would still want to be talking to me through this and during this."  

"It was very emotional. I just kept talking to her like, you are really here. You are doing this," Ashleigh said. "A second chance of life is really what that meant to Lacey."  

Lacey and Ashleigh were close before the kidney transplant and are even closer now. The two even make it a point to go out and do something special every year on Jan. 29 to mark their "kidney-versary."   

For Lacey, the combination of Ashleigh's organ donation and her earning her college degree from MSU has opened up the possibilities for her health and her future. This future was possible through her determination, the compassionate act of a best friend and a lot of support along the way.  

"I was telling people at graduation when people asked me how I feel," Lacey said. "I was like, 'love got me here.'"

Photo, upper right: Lacey Schollenberger (left, Class of 2021) graduated with a bachelor’s degree after having to withdraw from the University years earlier due to health complications from lupus and kidney failure. Thanks to a kidney transplant from her friend and former classmate Ashleigh Flanery (right, Class of 2009), Lacey was healthy enough to return to MSU to finish college. 

Photo, middle left: On Thanksgiving in 2018, Lacey and Ashleigh came up with a creative way to announce to friends and Lacy’s mother that Ashleigh agreed to donate her kidney. 

Photo, bottom right: Lacey and Ashleigh getting together to celebrate their “kidney-versary,” which they have done every year on Jan. 29 since the kidney transplant.