Merida Bourjolly and her 16-year-old daughter, Yani Barrow, are two peas in a pod. They both laugh easily and are often told they look and sound alike. They have been through many difficult moments during the past three years as Merida underwent kidney dialysis and then transplant. And yet they remain upbeat and inspire those around them.
Though Merida was born with two healthy kidneys, at three weeks old she developed a kidney infection and her left kidney had to be removed. Three years ago, during a routine doctor visit, she was told that her right kidney was failing. Not long after, she was listed for a kidney transplant. Merida received the gift of life in early December.
Merida’s laugh and smile helped Yani throughout their ordeal. “She has positive energy around her,” says Yani. “I want to be around people like my mom. I try to take her positivity with me to school.”
Merida credits the Howie’s House with helping her maintain her optimistic outlook.
“I felt no negativity there, nothing but encouragement to feel better and to get well. There’s so much love that you experience from the staff, from volunteers who come to cook for us, and those who shuttle us to the hospital.”
Merida continues, “You can’t help but feel happy during your stay. I was never scared or felt like I was far from home — particularly due to the staff. They went out of their way to make us comfortable,” adds Merida. “They were an important part of my care, recovery and well being.”
Yani is studying ballet and modern dance at the prestigious Frank Sinatra School of the Arts High School in New York City. Merida is a cosmetologist and has her own salon where she encourages her clients to pursue a healthy lifestyle. She continued to work three days a week while undergoing dialysis. Merida and Yani would leave their home in Queens at 5:30 in the morning so that Yani could catch a bus and two trains to school and Merida could make it to dialysis early and be home to help Yani with her homework. During Yani’s school breaks, she went with Merida to dialysis so she could see firsthand what her mother was going through.
Merida coped with cold extremities, pain, and cramping brought on by many hours of dialysis, which she needed to stay alive while she waited for a kidney to become available. Regardless of her discomfort, she went to all of Yani’s dance recitals and school meetings.
Yani explains, “God blessed my mother to have this positivity. When I had a show or a meeting, and her muscles were cramping and her body was hurting because of dialysis, instead of her saying ‘No, I don’t feel good,’ she’d always say, ‘I’ll be there.’” In 2015, during her sophomore year, Yani asked Merida if she could be in a pageant. She thought it would help build her confidence. Merida agreed. Yani competed first at the state level in the Miss New York Junior Teen pageant, where she was among the top 10 finalists, first runner-up for talent, and second runner-up for modeling. Her success qualified her to go to the National American Miss pageant in California, where she also did well. These were remarkable achievements, especially since she was new to such competitions. Merida arranged to get dialysis while she was in California, so she could be there to coach Yani and do her hair and makeup.
“I couldn’t have done it without her. She’s a really strong woman. I can’t believe how strong she is.” says Yani.
Merida stayed at the Howie’s House for two months while she was recovering from transplant surgery, with family members coming in from as far as Haiti to be at her side. She credits the healing environment there for her peace of mind. “It allowed me to not have to think of the things that I would have to think of if I was home. It allowed me the comfort of being able to go to the hospital using the shuttle services. The shuttle drivers wanted to know how I was feeling. The social worker wanted to know how I was feeling. The staff really looks out for you and your needs.”
“Staying at the Howie’s House also allowed me to grow spiritually. I experienced a lot of things that I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to otherwise, like hearing the stories of the people who volunteer there and why they come there to give back.” “I’ve made so many friends at the Howie’s House, people I would not have otherwise been able to get to know or to hear their stories. That was huge for me. Finding out about their transplants and how it affected them and their families. It really was a growing experience for me to be there.”
The affordability of the Howie’s House also provided peace of mind for Merida, a single mother. “It was very important to me, knowing that I’m self-employed and was going to have to stop working during my recovery process. Not having to stay in a hotel was really major for me. Then to find out how affordable the Howie’s House made it for us was really a blessing to our family.”