Detroit teacher gives student kidney, new life

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Detroit — A'Ja Booth walked the red carpet into the school gymnasium Tuesday with a shy smile and a new kidney.

It was the 18-year-old senior's first day back at West Side Academy since a successful transplant five months ago. Ten classmates and a counselor on either side of the red carpet greeted her with confetti while 11th- and 12th-graders seated on bleachers cheered and applauded.

The woman close by her side on the red carpet, the one who linked arms with A'Ja and couldn't stop smiling, was not just the physical education and health teacher. She was A'Ja's donor.

They were a perfect match.

"This is what we do as teachers," said Nadirah Muhammad, 39, who is a wife and the mother of a son. "I did not do it for the accolades. I saw a human being in need and if it were my child, I'd want someone to step forward and help him."

When it was A'Ja's turn at the microphone, inside the gym decorated with black and silver balloons, she was overcome with emotion and covered her eyes, crying softly.

The students applauded and shouted, "We love you," urging her to take her time.

"I am really thankful and blessed," said A'Ja. "I can't thank her any more than I already have. I look at her as my second mother. She's a wonderful woman."

Andrea Ayler, principal of West Side Academy, said she had to push the teacher to go public about her gift to A'Ja.

"Mrs. Muhammad did not want a lot of publicity, but I told her we have to tell this story," Ayler said. "People just don't do this. I myself would be hesitant. ... I'm just so grateful to be principal of a school of educators who love children unconditionally the way Mrs. Muhammad does."

The donor and recipient came together after Muhammad met A'Ja in her dance class during winter semester last school year. In May 2014, the teacher noticed a book A'Ja had written, "My Dialysis Journey" and asked if she could read it.

The book was A'Ja's story of being a kidney patient. She described undergoing dialysis for four hours at a time, three days a week, and how she needed a transplant. Muhammad was immediately moved to help.

"She had been in my dance class for about two or three months before I even knew she was on dialysis," said Muhammad. "Now she's healthy and it's just great to see her back in school and graduating in a few weeks."

In her book, A'Ja wrote: "I'm tired of living day to day like everything's alright. Being in a chair and hooked up to a machine is not a choice. I have to do it."

After doctors determined teacher and student were a match, Muhammad's kidney was removed Dec. 15, 2014, at Henry Ford Hospital and transplanted into A'Ja at Children's Hospital of Michigan. Nearly seven weeks later, Muhammad returned to work at West Side Academy, an alternative education school.

A'Ja, meanwhile, is set to graduate June 8, pending completion of online courses.

Dr. Jason Denny, a surgeon at Henry Ford Health System and the Henry Ford Transplant Institute who performed the transplant, explained that kidney failure requires dialysis, which means a curtailed life.

"The best medical treatment for patients is a transplant, and donors can be living or deceased," he said.

He emphasized the need for more organ donors. According to the National Kidney Foundation, as of April 22, 101,662 U.S. kidney patients were awaiting transplants.

A'Ja's friend Dakota Crowder, 18, also a senior, said at first he was frightened for her because he had never known anyone who had had a kidney transplant.

"I felt relieved when I found out Mrs. Muhammad was the one who was donating the kidney," he said. "When I found out everything was OK after the transplant, I was happy for A'Ja and Mrs. Muhammad."

A'Ja said she plans to attend Oakland University and hopes to become a nurse.

"She will have a long and prosperous life taking good care of my kidney," Muhammad said.

(313) 222-2296