Lori Orton and her cousin Joe Russelburg share time together at Russelburg’s home near Princeton, Ill. (Ron Johnson/Journal Star via AP)

Lori Orton just wanted to figure out her family’s medical history. It bothered her that she didn’t know it.

Orton, of Pekin, Ill., was adopted. And so years ago, she started poking online for clues and sending messages on social media.

All her sleuthing led to her biological family, which is notable in and of itself. But we’re going to focus on what happened next.

Because after she connected with her biological relatives, Orton became close with a cousin, Joe Russelburg.

And a few years after, she would help save his life.

“Joe and I had become very, very close,” Orton, 39, said. “I can’t imagine having gotten so close to this member of my biological family and then have him taken away like that, you know. Our whole family had gotten very close. That was one aspect.

“Another aspect is: It is something that is really important to me and to my children to have the opportunity to be able to do something like that for somebody else. I just can’t imagine being able to do it and not doing that for somebody. I feel like there is not enough of that left in the world, where people are doing things for other people.”

This all began more than a decade ago, when Orton started to look for her family, she said. She had gotten a peek at her adoption papers, which meant she knew the names of her biological parents. She also knew, generally, the area they were from. One day, she was searching a website and came across Social Security Death Index information for her father.

“I didn’t realize that I should be looking for somebody that was deceased,” she said. “I was looking for somebody that was alive. And that’s how I found him.”

That information led to her grandmother, whom she messaged on Facebook. That didn’t work right away, so she sent out messages to the woman’s other children. A few days later, an uncle contacted her. Family on her father’s side helped her get in touch with family on her mother’s side, some of whom had been looking for her, too.

That, in a nutshell, is how she met Russelburg, a cousin on her mother’s side of the family.

It’s tough to articulate, exactly how the two became such fast friends, Orton said. They had similar interests. And they both had kids who were about the same age.

“It was just a feeling,” Orton said. “We just really hit it off. It’s so hard to explain. I wish that I could put it into words.”

Russelburg told the Peoria Journal Star: “She was a very open, very sweet woman, genuine to the sense that she wanted to get to know people and understand where she came from. It wasn’t like she was seeking out to receive something. She had a true, genuine want to know.”


Lori Orton and Joe Russelburg. (Photo courtesy of Lori Orton)

A little over a year ago, though, Russelburg found out that he was experiencing renal failure, a condition that the Journal Star reported stemmed from his diabetes.

It turned out Russelburg might need a kidney transplant.

And Orton decided that if that happened, she would offer to be tested to see if she could donate.

She was approved as the organ donor on her birthday, in November.

“Just as everything kept coming back positive and kept coming back good, it was a little bit surreal. It was shocking, it was a relief, when I found out for sure that I was approved to be his organ donor,” Orton said. “And then, scary at the same time.”

The Journal Star reported:

After weeks of blood tests, physical examinations and interviews to determine that Orton was a fit donor, she and Russelburg went under the knife on Jan. 25. Before surgeons even closed his incision, Orton’s kidney was already working inside his body — which doctors said is an indication of what a close match they were.

“He felt so good right away. And it was absolutely fantastic seeing him like that,” Orton said. “It made any pain and discomfort that I was going to have for my recovery absolutely worth it.”

Orton has always been close with her adopted family, she said, and a connection with her biological relatives wasn’t something she ever felt as if she needed. But “there’s a little bit something different, just knowing that you’re related by blood,” Orton said. And now, she’s connected to Russelburg by so much more.

“Joe and I, in particular, are closer, and his wife and children are, they’re part of my family,” Orton said. “There’s a love there and a bond that I haven’t felt with very many people.”

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