‘Reese shows us you can have tragedy in your life and still move on and be full of life and hope for the future.’
By Sherry Bunting, reprinted from Farmshine, Friday, December 15, 2017
MERCERSBURG, Pa. — Cheese ball is back on the menu this Christmas at the Burdette house on Corner Road outside of Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. It’s among the favorite foods that Reese Burdette has had to forgo for nearly four years to be easy on her damaged kidneys as she recovered from the May 2014 house fire.
That, along with hash brown casserole and all the yummy goodness of dairy foods, potatoes, orange juice and bananas — essentially nutritious foods high in vitamins such as potassium. In fact, so happy is Reese about bananas, Claire believes she’s eaten a tree full already.
Not only is Reese happy to be eating these foods again, “I hope to start growing again too!” the smiling 10-year-old said during my visit to Windy-Knoll View farm last Thursday.
While she has forged ahead on this journey on every front, it was the kidney transplant everyone knew Reese would eventually need that was hanging out there on the horizon. Justin and Claire Burdette learned in September that their daughter was in renal failure. She had been doing so well, so the timing was a bit of a shock.
Many people had already been tested as live donors — from friends and family members to colleagues in the dairy industry. But who would think that the “angel” sent into Reese’s life would be a friend of a cousin by marriage who had met Reese one time, a young, single woman with a heart of gold and willing to go through the surgery to donate a kidney to give Reese the vitality of life this ‘tuff girl’ has been fighting for.
Through the selfless generosity of Alyssa Hussey, 32, of Winchester, Virginia, a special education teacher with the Loudoun County Public Schools, the successful kidney transplant took place at Johns Hopkins on November 20. Not only are they both home and doing well, Reese was released just five days after the surgery, getting her home just after Thanksgiving and far sooner than imagined.
The two were expecting to have a visit at the farm this week, and Reese said she is anxious to show her hero around to see her growing little herd of 12 Holsteins, not to mention the five calves her sister Brinkley has accumulated among the Windy-Knoll View herd of top registered Holsteins.
Ahead of the transplant surgery, Reese’s aunt Laura Jackson updated on social media to say:
“What many may not realize is what this beautiful soul has offered up is a very different kind of life for Reese, a chance at a life with more quality and abundance, of water parks, river swimming, better health and the chance to be a normal 10-year-old with a chance to grow.”
Alyssa has given Reese the ultimate gift — the gift of life.
“We are relieved to have faced this. We knew it was coming. We just didn’t think it would be now. But what a blessing,” Justin reflects. “This kidney transplant would not be possible without someone like Alyssa. It’s proof that living donors are out there and we found one that we had ties to and never knew.”
Claire says that, “It’s hard to fathom someone willing to give our child their kidney and we barely knew her. But she didn’t think twice. We are beyond grateful.”
It was a regular day on the farm when I arrived just as Reese was finishing school via the virtual robot — a necessity as she avoids large indoor crowds for the next 100 days since the transplant. Her younger sister Brinkley was just getting off the school bus. We had an hour to talk before Justin headed out to milk, driving down Brinkley and Reese Way, the dirt roads across the field between their house and the farm. The late afternoon sun, as the farm’s name suggests, broke through cold windswept clouds in the gap of the south mountains.
At the kitchen table, the topic of conversation centered on the many things Reese was already reintroducing into her life since the transplant, the goals she and her mother Claire have set, and the activities she is looking forward to – not the least of which was a trip to Greencastle Friday evening for the annual horse-drawn sleigh ride with her Momo and Papap (Jim and Nina Burdette).
What is it about Reese’s story that has inspired such a far-reaching interest and impact? People write and call and follow her progress from near and far. It’s a story of faith, hope and the determination to live life to the fullest, to overcome challenges and setbacks, to never give up, never let go of the rope and to keep moving forward in a matter-of-fact way with fierce strength, raw honesty, family love and accountability filtered by the wisdom of a 10-year-old’s keen sense of humor.
Justin notes that they had a visit not long ago from a Canadian couple who keep in touch often to see how Reese is doing. They traveled to Pennsylvania just to visit her, amazed by her journey after nearly two years at Johns Hopkins recovering from the fire. This dairy farming couple had been through a barn fire and had dealt with animal losses that were depressing. Knowing Reese, seeing her, has made a difference in their world.
They are but one example of hearts Reese has helped to heal through her own example.
They are among the many who have written the Burdettes about what Reese’s story means to them, and what her journey has done for them in their own circumstances. Claire explains that, at first, these responses were hard to realize and digest because so many have done so much for Reese and their family that they felt they were leaning on others only to learn that others were finding support also in them.
“I think what Reese shows us is that you can have tragedy in your life and still move on and be full of life and hope for the future. I think that is what Reese has done for people,” Claire explains.
Healing and support going both ways – a lifeline — gifts that keep giving.
In like manner, the kidney donated by Alyssa Hussey is new hope transplanted, a gift that keeps giving in a young girl with a second chance.
Justin and Claire also had high praise for their summer intern who came back to help at the farm so they could be with Reese, worry-free, in the hospital for the transplant. Mikey Barton is the grandson of Ken Main of Elite Dairy and Cutting-Edge Genetics in Copake, New York. He had served as an intern last summer at Windy-Knoll View, and when he heard about the upcoming kidney transplant for Reese, he came down to help take care of things.
“We are so blessed,” the Burdettes said, describing the bond Mikey has made with their family. “Blessed that he comes back to see us and that he would take his time off to come down here so we could focus on Reese.”
Justin was quick to point out that he got back to the farm Wednesday to be sure to have Mikey home with his family for Thanksgiving, and that Mikey made time to drive the two hours south to see Reese in the hospital before heading north back to New York.
“We felt we have learned as much from Mikey as he has learned from us through this internship experience,” said Claire. “It has been a neat connection. He knows our routine and we didn’t have to worry about things at home for those few days.”
The Burdettes also credit the support of their local community and the dairy community from the beginning. Flannery’s Tavern on the Square in Mercersburg hosted a Team Reese fundraiser a week before the kidney transplant to help with medical and related expenses with the restaurant donating 15% of the days sales and providing a room for 75 silent-auction items donated and bid on by the greater community.
For the Burdettes, it has been the physical outpouring that accompanies the financial support of others that has lifted them up. To see a Team Reese fundraiser pack the local restaurant from open to close shows how much Reese has lived up to her nickname as “Mercersburg’s daughter.” When she and Brinkley walk into Flannerys, as they do once a week, people cheer. No price can be put on that physical show of support.
Every effort to this point has come together toward a life that will be much different for Reese now. No lines to tether her. No long trips for dialysis.
Clair confirms the doctors are very happy with her progress and her bloodwork looks good. Her main job in the next 100 days is to stay healthy and drink lots of fluids for that new kidney.
High on Reese’s list of “new” is fewer shots, fewer medicines, and working on giving up the tracheotomy for supplemental oxygen.
She is pretty excited about her Dad’s promise of a trip to Great Wolf Lodge where a waterpark is in her future.
“I can’t wait to bathe in that waterpark and get Brinkley soaked!” she says with a laugh.
But first she needs to reach the point in her journey where the trach is no longer needed. Now that the kidney transplant has occurred, there will be sleep studies and trials to be sure the timing is right to close the trach, and then the watersports and other activities will beckon. Reese already gave up the constant companion of traveling oxygen last Easter when she wanted to be outside with the other kids for a longer period of time, and decided on her own, she didn’t need it.
Reese has set a goal to attend the Pennsylvania Junior Holstein Convention in Lancaster in February. Mom’s goal is to get her through the next three months away from crowds to be strong and healthy into this next chapter of her journey.
Because we all know what comes next. There are calves to work with and cows to care for and in addition to a new calf Cream Cheese from her Carrie cow, named after the child life specialist who has been inspirational on this journey, there are the new gals from her Pantene line, like Potato Chip and Pretzel.
Reese and Brinkley talk excitedly about their cattle as they rattle off names and pedigrees.
But the cow work will have to wait, except for drive-throughs this winter. Instead, Reese is happy to be making and eating some of her favorite dishes. This week she made sticky buns with her Momo and a repeat favorite meal – sloppy joes.
She says, “No more driving to dialysis and getting home late at night!” That all ended on November 21 along with the line in her belly and the constant hemoglobin shots.
The people who have stuck with Reese from the beginning continue to be there in large ways and small. A woman in town still sends Reese a card every week, just as she has since May 2014.
As for the Christmas celebration, her second at home since the fire, Reese has big plans. She shared her small, but typical 10-year-old’s list for Santa and the family traditions she looks forward to. To avoid contact with crowds, she’s shopping by internet, and she’s pretty excited that on Christmas Eve, she will be helping her Momo prepare the dinner.
For Claire and Justin, having their daughter home with her new kidney for Christmas is the greatest gift of all.
“There is so much good in this world,” Justin affirms. “We just have to look for it.”
One place to look is the inspiration of little Reese Burdette.
Correspondence can be sent to Reese Burdette, 8656 Corner Road, Mercersburg, PA 17236. Financial contributions or fundraisers for Reese and her family, can be sent to “We Love Reese” First Community Bank, 12 S. Main St., Mercersburg, PA 17236.