The Bond of Friendship

An old photo shoring two young woman smiling brighly toward the camera as they are seated in a living room.
College besties: Susan (Gruntorad) Balch ’87 and Audrey (Butcher) Natal ’89

Alumnae Susan Balch ’87 and Audrey Natal ’89 cannot recall a moment when they weren’t friends. They have been nearly inseparable since meeting as students at UC San Diego. But their friendship is more than shared memories and experiences: their friendship is bound by blood.

Shortly after college, Susan was diagnosed with Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD), a hereditary disease that causes the kidneys to enlarge and lose function over time. She had no health issues until 2018, when her doctor said her kidney function was so poor that it was time to consider a kidney donation. “He told me that people like me will either go on dialysis, which adversely affects your overall health, or die while waiting for a donor kidney,” says Susan. “He encouraged me to reach out to friends and family for a living donor. To ask someone for their kidney… it’s just awful. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do.”

Although they were separated by hundreds of miles, the two friends and their husbands, Jeff Balch and Bob Natal, regularly kept in touch. After hearing the news, Audrey knew she had to get tested as a potential donor.

“I remember the conversation when she told me that her doctor had told her it was time to look for a donor,” says Audrey. “She’s like a sister to me, and I thought, I have to try.” Multiple friends and family answered Susan’s call to be tested to see if they were a match, but only one passed: Audrey.

After qualifying for the first round of tests, Audrey moved on through the process to meet with more doctors. “While explaining the entire process to you, they keep telling you that you can back out and change your mind at any time, even when you’re in the operating room,” she says. “I never doubted my decision—I was going to do this for my friend.”

Two women in a hospital room, one laying in the hospital bed, the other leaning down toward her with their hands joined.

On the day of the transplant, in February 2020, they were joined by UC San Diego alumnae, Erika Glennon ’87 and Terry Dosenberry ’89 at Scripps Green in La Jolla, who had made the trip to support the twosome.

Susan says, “I had my girlfriends with me and we just laughed and held each other. The atmosphere was relaxed and I wasn’t scared.”

Three weeks later, San Diego hospitals shut down due to the growing threat of the pandemic. “The stars aligned for this donation to occur when it did,” says Susan.

Today, Susan, a retired middle school teacher, is healthy once again. She takes daily walks with her dog on Washington’s Bainbridge Island, and practices yoga. Audrey, an office manager at a pediatric therapy clinic in Texas, says her life hasn’t changed much since the donation, although she does need to drink more water and can’t participate in contact sports. “I was never into martial arts anyway,” she laughs.

Their bond of friendship is stronger than ever before. “Whether she likes it or not, we’re family now,” says Susan. “I will always have a part of her, and for that, I will be forever grateful.”


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