OCEAN LAKES — Kayla Iazzetta graduated last month from the Math and Science Academy at Ocean Lakes High School. The 18-year-old Brigadoon resident earned a 4.36 grade point average.
In the grand scheme of things, a superb GPA is a minor accomplishment in the life of a young woman who was diagnosed with kidney failure at 13.
“I constantly learn I can get over hurdles that have been put in my way,” Iazzetta said with what seems to be an ever-present smile. “This disease taught me I am more capable than I ever thought I was.”
This was not the initial reaction in seventh grade after a practice in which her softball coach noticed fluid in her legs. She was encouraged to see a doctor immediately. Her doctor took and retook blood samples because he could not believe what he saw.
Iazzetta knew something was wrong when, after the second test in an hour, he returned with a team of physicians. The count of hemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen in the blood, was too low. It should have been around 13. It was about five and dropping.
The teen was rushed to the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk. Her diagnosis was rapid progressive glomerulonephritis, which affects the kidney’s ability to function because the body effectively attacks itself. If left untreated, her condition might have led to death within months.
The seventh grader spent the next two months in the hospital undergoing blood transfusions. Some treatments removed plasma, treated it, and returned it to her body. There was also chemotherapy to stop the autoimmune disease from killing her.
She wound up missing the rest of the school year, but she had the summer to rest. A catheter was embedded in her right side, so she could continue to attend school — and keep playing softball, which she did.
“I figured if softball was keeping me alive before this happened, it will help me to get back to where I need to be,” she said.
While her peers were concerned with the social world, Iazzetta was worried her dialysis machine would go off in the middle of the night, according to Tara Copeland, her mom.
“The whole experience caused her to grow up fast,” Copeland said. “She learned to appreciate today.”
At one point, Iazzetta took more than 40 pills per day. She knew she needed to be extra careful of germs and infections for the rest of her life, but treatment and care also allowed her to be placed on the waiting list for a kidney transplant.
That process could take three to five years for children.
What happened next was nothing short of a miracle.
On a family visit to Oklahoma, the family discussed the topic of a kidney transplant. Family was the best chance of getting a match. Iazzetta’s parents didn’t qualify. Her brother was too young.
Ronnie Price, her stepfather’s sister’s husband, volunteered to give a kidney. Everyone at the table thought it was a joke, but, two weeks later, Kayla’s parents got a call saying Price went to be tested.
Though he was not a blood relation, Price was a strong match.
It took a year to go through the transplant process, but Iazzetta got her kidney on July 10, 2012.
“She’s taught me to breathe, enjoy life,” Copeland said in an interview this month. “When you look at her, you would never know the fight she has gone through for her life. You think of this happening to a teenager and it just crushing them. Instead, she turned a horrible situation into something amazing.”
Iazzetta, a wisp of a woman at 97 pounds, acknowledged that her life hasn’t been an easy road, but she said she hasn’t walked it alone. She said encouragement has come from family, friends, her church and school.
Cheryl Askew, principal at Ocean Lakes, said she remembers Iazzetta coming into school during chemotherapy. The teen wore a short pixie haircut and huge smile on her face. Askew remembers Iazzetta always being in a good mood and inspiring everyone she came into contact with during the day.
“Sometimes in education it’s easy to get bogged down in the mire when something goes wrong,” she said. “The 2 percent gets you down. Then there are the Kaylas out there who far exceed anything that goes wrong. She is a role model for everyone.”
Todd Sherman, assistant principal at the high school, has also worked with Iazzetta while she has finished up her degree.
“She always has a smile on her face,” he said. “She’s just a great young lady.”
In remembering what the last five years have been like, Iazzetta said, “You can’t give advice to someone else. You just have to wait until it gets better. Don’t wallow. When that door opens, walk through.”
This fall, she’ll attend Penn State University to pursue a degree in bioengineering. She hopes to major in biomaterials so she can eventually work with internal and external prosthetics.
She wants to help others overcome afflictions.
In six to seven years, she’ll be ready for another transplant as the life span for her kidney winds down.
For Iazzetta, it’s just another door to walk through.