Routt County mom to donate kidney to teenager with ties to Hayden

Hayden area mom Jacci Jo Walton, upper right, poses with her husband, their six children and her parents during a train trip in March 2022.
Courtesy photo

Routt County mom Jacci Jo Walton watches her 14-year-old daughter enjoy an active life at school, in 4-H and participating in the Routt County Fair, and she wishes for an equally active lifestyle for another 14-year-old with family ties to Hayden.

However, that 14-year-old, Emri Sjostrom, whose father, Daniel, grew up in Hayden, is not able to live a regular life right now. The kidney transplant he received at age 2 is failing. Every evening at 8 p.m., he is connected to an at-home kidney dialysis machine for 10 hours.

About one year ago, when the teenager was placed on the organ donor list, his cousin Kezia Zuber, a special education teacher in the Hayden School District, shared a Facebook post about Emri Sjostrom needing a living donor for a kidney transplant. Walton felt called to help, so she prayed and talked about the request with her family. Her husband and children were supportive.

“If any of my kids ever needed something like this, I would just pray that someone would help them,” Walton said.

Since Walton is young and healthy at age 32 and has O-positive blood, she underwent medical testing and even a psychological test for the state of California to determine if she is a good donor match.

Walton flew to southern California earlier in July for other testing at the Loma Linda University Transplantation Institute in San Bernardino and to meet the Sjostrom family for the first time.

Emri’s mom, Soha Sjostrom, an elementary special education teacher in California, was almost speechless about the sacrifice that Walton, mother to six children, is making.

“I couldn’t believe it,” the California mom said. “I have prayed and prayed and prayed for something like this to happen, but I didn’t think it would happen.”

Siblings Emma, Tobi and Emri Sjostrom pose on vacation in Colorado last summer on a visit with family living in Hayden. The children’s father, Daniel, grew up in Hayden.
Courtesy photo

“What do you tell somebody who is going to donate a kidney to your child? How do you thank somebody who is is offering to give her kidney to your child and you don’t even know her?” Sjostrom said, fighting back tears. “I just called her in tears. I didn’t know what to say.”

Walton may have just met the Sjostrom family in person, but the families’ have years of connections through the Hayden schools and the small town. As a former school librarian, Walton and Zuber were colleagues. Zuber worked with Walton’s children through the schools, and family cousins were in the same class in school in Hayden in past years. Zuber’s mom was Walton’s preschool teacher.

Walton also thinks her own family situation influenced her decision to donate a kidney. She was adopted, and now she lives in a blended family with her two biological children and her husband’s four children.

“Everybody can create a family and love other people without knowing them from birth,” Walton said.

Sjostrom noted that among her son’s medical struggles, he battled Post-Transplant Lymphoproliferative Disease due to the antirejection drugs he had to take after his kidney transplant at age two. He beat that complication, and the donated kidney lasted about 12 years.

The mom in California wants to continue to honor the deceased donor of her son’s first transplanted kidney. The donor was a 6-year-old boy named Amarion Adams, who was shot in the head and died in June 2010 after a drive-by shooting incident at a family gathering in San Bernardino.

Emri Sjostrom, 14, lower left, gathers with family members on the family homestead near Hayden.
Courtesy photo

Medical professionals say a living donor kidney may produce better results. Emri’s parents are not matches for kidney donation due to health, age and blood type issues, and Emri’s fraternal twin sister, Emma, is too young to donate. Emri’s older brother is still a teenager, but his mom said he hopes to donate a kidney to his younger brother if needed again later in life.

“Recipients of a living donor kidney usually live longer, healthier lives compared to those who receive a deceased donor kidney, or a kidney from someone who has just died,” according to the American Kidney Fund.

Due to complicated regulations that protect against organ trafficking, the Sjostrom family is not able to support Walton financially with her travel and some medical costs that are not covered by her Medicaid insurance plan. So, Walton’s mom, Barbara Gilbert, set up a GoFundMe page titled “Become a living donor” for others who might want to help with the organ donation expenses.

“I’m hoping people will help cover her expenses,” Sjostrom said. “We cannot directly donate to her; that’s considered organ trafficking. I’m just hoping that the community will root for her and help her out. She is an angel, and she should be celebrated.”

To learn more about living organ donation, one resource is the United Network for Organ Sharing.

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