There are friends. And there are best friends.

And then there’s the friend who gives one of her kidneys to save your 5-year-old daughter’s life. For that level of love and support, “There are no words,” says Lyn Hollister.

But best friend Brandy Tarrant contends she is the one who received a gift.

“I can’t think of anything better that I could do ever in my life,” she said.

Everything was so touch-and-go for a long time. …This kid is just a fighter beyond belief.

Brandy Tarrant
Kidney donor for Makenzie

The story behind Makenzie Hollister’s kidney transplant from “Aunt Brandy” began long before the transplant surgery—even before Makenzie and her twin sister, Shelbie, came into the world as tiny preemies.

It dates back nine years, when Tarrant and Hollister worked together at Animal Emergency Hospital in Northeast Grand Rapids, Michigan. They formed a close friendship. Tarrant was a bridesmaid at Lyn and Mike Hollister’s wedding.

Life changed dramatically when the Hollisters’ twins were born Jan. 31, 2010. Hollister was not quite 25 weeks pregnant—24 weeks and six days—when she went into labor. Makenzie was born weighing 1 pound, 11 ounces. Shelbie weighed 1 pound, 14 ounces.

As the Hollisters watched over their daughters in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, Tarrant sat by their side. A Spectrum Health employee, she often left work at the end of the day and headed to the NICU for the evening.

“I was in the NICU with Lyn the night she was told Makenzie was in renal failure,” Tarrant said.

Hope for a match

From that moment, the Hollisters knew that if Makenzie survived, she would need a kidney transplant someday. Unknown to them, that was the moment Tarrant began to wonder: Should she donate a kidney?

Before a transplant could occur, Makenzie had to overcome several medical hurdles.

“Everything was so touch-and-go for a long time,” Tarrant said. “This kid is just a fighter beyond belief.”

Like her sister, Shelbie, she had underdeveloped lungs, which led to chronic lung disease.

Makenzie also had cerebral palsy. And at 2, she got liver cancer. She had surgery to remove her gallbladder and 30 percent of her liver. She had to be in remission for two years before she could undergo transplant surgery.

Because of her kidney failure, Makenzie underwent dialysis for four and a half years, starting at 11 months old. Her parents did home dialysis every day, for at least eight hours. At one point, she required dialysis 23 hours a day.

With checkups, tests and treatments, the Hollisters regularly made the 35-mile trip to the hospital from their Howard City, Michigan, home.

In February 2015, doctors cleared Makenzie for a transplant, and Tarrant announced she wanted to be the donor.

Hollister was overwhelmed—with gratitude and worry.

“I was scared,” she said. “She’s my best friend. She’s the person I go to when I’m having problems. And here she is putting her life on the line for my daughter.”

There was no guarantee Tarrant’s kidney would be a match. She didn’t even know her blood type. But as she underwent testing, every step showed she was a match.

“There came a certain point where I felt like this is fated to be,” she said. “It just aligned too well.”

In fact, she would have been heartbroken if she could not give one of her kidneys. Tarrant, 37, said she and her husband, Gabe, don’t plan to have children. The Hollisters’ kids—including 14-month-old Colton—are family to her.

“Makenzie is very, very important and very, very special to me,” she said. “I love her dearly. I love her mom dearly—and her dad and her sister and brother.”

Makenzie blossoms

The transplant took place July 21. Tarrant admits it was painful.

“I’m a wimp. I’ll own that,” she said with a laugh. “I was very, very tired for quite a while.”

But Makenzie came through the operation well, and that made it all worthwhile.

“Her transplant is functioning wonderfully, and she is adapting to her new life free of dialysis every night,” said Julia Steinke, MD, MS, the medical director of the pediatric kidney transplant program at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

The bonus, for Tarrant, was to watch Makenzie blossom post-surgery.

“Her personality came out more. She was more talkative and energetic,” she said.

Now in kindergarten, twins Makenzie and Shelbie share a close friendship. They play Uno and Trouble. They differ in their choice of favorite colors—Makenzie likes orange and Shelbie likes purple, pink and green. Both are big fans of the movie “Frozen.”

Shortly before their own birthday, Makenzie, Shelbie and Lyn chatted with Maranda at the celebration for the blue building turning 5. And as the girls played with a train set, their parents marveled at how far they have come. At birth, they were so tiny that Dad’s wedding ring could slide up their arm to the shoulder.

Challenges remain. Both still need breathing treatments and inhalers.

Makenzie undergoes physical therapy for cerebral palsy. Her parents look forward to getting a wheelchair and walker to help with mobility.

“It has been quite a journey,” Dr. Steinke said. “This family has been an inspiration to me in enduring life’s hardships and looking positively to the future.”

Tarrant remains close to the Hollisters—and shares a special bond with Makenzie.

“Words can’t say enough about what she’s done for Makenzie,” Hollister said. “I’m still dumbfounded sometimes.”

“It’s so worth it,” Tarrant said. “I’ve said to her, ‘You don’t owe me anything.’ This is the kind of thing you do for people you care about.”

Watch now: Makenzie, Shelbie and Lyn, chat with Maranda. Read more about pediatric kidney transplants at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.