Since meeting each other at First Presbyterian Church of Cartersville, the women's relationship has developed into one of sisterhood, with them affectionately referring to themselves as twins. In May, their connection strengthened considerably as Dunlap helped prolong Bickford's life by becoming her kidney donor.
"I don't have the vocabulary to tell you [what she means to me]," said Bickford, a part-time biology teacher at Woodland High School, who had been experiencing kidney failure since December 2004. "It's just absolutely incredible that she would be willing to do such a thing and then go through with it. She's a real life hero."
After hearing about Bickford's medical situation, Dunlap decided to undergo testing to see if her kidney was a match.
"I always like to give blood and be tested and just try to help out in any way," said Dunlap, a 41-year-old mother of two. "You never think that you will be a match but I'm all for helping in any way that I can. So I just made that decision and I felt like God was there with me and said this is a good thing so I went ahead and got tested. The process first started last summer ... When I was told that I was a match. I thought, 'OK this is neat,' and I knew that I would have to go through two days of intensive medical testing and I said if everything goes well with those medical tests and everything comes out then it was meant to be.
"I knew that God had put that plan in work and that it was meant to be. And no, I never not once had any doubts or wanted to change my mind even though I had never, ever undergone surgery. The only time I'd ever been in the hospital was for the birth of my children. So I had no idea -- that was probably why I didn't have any second thoughts, because I had no idea what surgery was like or anything, but I never had any doubts."
Placed on Georgia's kidney transplant waiting list in summer 2008, Bickford said several of her friends and family volunteered and some were tested but their organs were found to be incompatible. Considering it to be the best Christmas present to date, she received the news that her fellow church member was a positive match during last year's Christmas Eve service at First Presbyterian.
"Right before the service she came up to me -- I was already sitting down -- and she leaned over and said, 'What would you like for Christmas?'" said 62-year-old Bickford. "Of course I knew she was already being tested and I looked at her and smiled and said, 'A kidney, of course' and she said, 'Well, you're going to get one' and I just burst into tears. She said, 'We can schedule surgery' and I was just absolutely elated. So she cried a little and I cried a little and we hugged."
Following their surgery at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta May 21, both women suffered no complications and were released four days later. The smooth nature of the surgery and recovery process has reinforced Dunlap's decision to donate her kidney. Based on her experience, she now is encouraging others to consider being an organ donor and give the gift of life to another.
"It's great," Dunlap said, about seeing Bickford active again. "I couldn't ask for a better feeling. It's wonderful. I'm just so glad that she's doing so well.
"My whole intention of any kind of an article that is done like this is to really emphasize the giving, to encourage other people to be donors because it really is the easiest thing. There is nothing hard. The recovery was very easy."
Bickford said she is grateful to Dunlap for giving her the opportunity to have a long, fulfilling life.
Her donated kidney, which is expected to last about 15 years, is enabling her to rediscover foods and activities that she was forced to avoid for the past few years. With her goal set on hiking trails in north Georgia or the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the near future, she said she can definitely see a sizable increase in her energy level since the surgery.
"I'm looking forward to being able to get out and do those things again. I haven't been able to do those in so many years. [Prior to surgery] the act of lifting my legs was difficult and then [I'd be] dragging my body up," Bickford said, about trying to climb stairs. "At one point literally [I] was having to pull myself up stairs with my arms. My legs were of absolutely no use and my lack of energy was terrible.
"I actually told Ted Smith [senior pastor at First Presbyterian] the day that I started dialysis -- he came to the hospital to see me -- and I told him then that my goal was simply to be able to get up out of a chair and walk across the room without having to will myself to do it. I'd have to say, 'OK, Sharon, get up and get across this room' and now I just hop up out of the chair and walk. I don't even think about it. It's like natural. I take it for granted," she said, adding for the rest of her life she will need to watch her diet, exercise routinely and take immunosuppressive medication.
In addition to Dunlap, Bickford also is appreciative of her church family's overwhelming support throughout their transplant process.
"I started attending in 2004 and I joined in January of 2005," said Bickford, about First Presbyterian, which has more than 600 active members. "The first day I went there, the first service I attended, I said, 'This is it, I'm home.'
"The people were so kind and so sweet and, of course, Ted is just incredible. I knew immediately that this was my church home, and that church family has been great. I don't know how Sharon or I could have gotten through without them. They brought food [and] all the cards. They fed us for the first two weeks after we got home from the hospital. They were wonderful."
For Julie Jensen, associate pastor for First Presbyterian, it has been a blessing to hear the women's stories of faith and witness the congregation's continued support.
"It was extraordinary to watch both of these women of faith put their faith in God and be there with them and minister to them and their families and really minister to the congregation as we were all in this together," Jensen said. "It was just absolutely extraordinary. I saw both of them the night before but Sharon Dunlap and I went out and had dinner and to hear her faith story and to hear her story about how she felt called to do this and her faith reasons behind it and that her faith never wavered. It was an honor and a privilege to get to hear about that.
"It was really a blessing for me to be a part of it and to get to be a part of watching this congregation feed them, drive them back and forth, support Sharon Dunlap's mom, support Sharon Bickford's friends. Everything from phone calls and cards and letters to visiting them to preparing meals for them, it's just been a blessing to watch our entire church community support these two."
The women's journey also has been a testament to the power of prayer, Jensen said.
"We were praying for Sharon Bickford and for her donor for a very long time, and it started with prayer," she said. "Prayer has undergirded every other way that we have supported them."