The kidney chain: Donor gives organ, new chance at life
The Oxford Eagle
Getting to know your neighbors can pay off in many ways, sometimes in the form of an organ.
When Vikki and Price Johnson, 54, began banking at Community Trust Bank, a small Oxford business managed by one of their friends, they became acquainted with one of the employees, Laura Lee, 36.
Each time she was around them, Lee thought about how nice the two were and how easy they were to talk to. And when she learned that the Johnsons were looking for someone to run their farm, Lee nominated her husband, Barry, for the job.
Barry Lee was a truck driver. Laura felt her husband missed a lot of moments in their children’s lives, so Barry began looking for a job closer to home.
He was hired as the Johnsons’ farm foreman in January of 2014, and the two families became so close it was as if they had known each other forever.
The following months, howver, would prove trying for Price, whose kidneys were failing.
In 1999, he learned the news after being diagnosed with gout at age 39. Doctors checked his kidney function levels, and as they ran more tests, the results pointed to kidney disease.
“I remember well the day the doctor informed me I had kidney disease, and there was nothing they could do,” Price Johnson said on the University of Alabama Medicine website. “I had never imagined that I was sick. I rode and showed horses. I loved to run long distance. I rode bikes and played tennis. I saw myself as so healthy. I thought things like kidney disease happened to ‘other’ people.”
Johnson was referred to nephrologist Marcelo Ruvinsky in Jackson, who monitored his kidney function for 14 years, managed medicines to slow his kidney failure and advised a diet to manage his potassium levels and ease the stress on his over-worked kidneys. But Johnson was told in the spring of 2013 that it was time to learn about dialysis and transplant options.
“Even though I had known for 14 years my kidneys would fail, this again was a shock,” Johnson said. “It’s like the Hemingway quote about how one goes bankrupt: ‘Gradually, then suddenly.’ I realized I wasn’t prepared for the next challenge ... It was a scary time of touring dialysis centers, reading about options and imagining what my life was going to be like.”
Johnson consulted UAB in August of 2013 about a possible transplant. Still anxious, he met Dr. Jayme Locke, who would become the chief surgeon on his transplant team.
Johnson’s brother was later evaluated and deemed a match.
In the spring of 2014, Johnson’s glomerular filtration rate, a measure of kidney function, hit 20. Hoping for a transplant before dialysis, Johnson felt discouraged when his brother was ruled out as a donor because of high blood pressure.
“I’m pretty sure my brother was more upset than I was, because we all heard a clock ticking,” Johnson said. “I was still fairly active, but I could tell my body wasn’t firing on all cylinders. With my kidney failure, my own blood pressure had become high, as well.”
Vikki Johnson signed up to donate, as did numerous cousins and friends.
“It was amazing and humbling to have such an outpouring of love and sacrifice,” Johnson said.
“We were kind of scrambling at that point,” Vikki said.
Some potential donors were rejected because of preexisting health conditions, but when Laura Lee heard the news, she felt called to be the donor.
“I know it sounds cliche,” Lee said. “But I felt like I was the one, like I was meant to do this. I wanted to help him. I was at a point in my life where I knew my kids were old enough to understand it all and would be proud of my decision. So I did a lot of praying and talking with my family. And my family was great. My husband, parents and kids all supported me.
“I, of course, knew that I wanted to donate my organs if I passed away and my organs were usable. I had it put on my driver’s license, and I told my mom and my husband so they would know my wishes if that ever happened. But I really never had thought about being a live donor. I guess I didn’t know it was possible.”
Laura visited the UAB Medicine website, filled out information to become a donor and notified the Johnsons.
“I told them I had my fingers crossed that it was going to happen,” she said. The next day, a donor coordinator contacted her and asked Lee to come in for an evaluation that would determine if she was a match. Other prospective donors would be evaluated at the same time.
The perfect scenario, Lee said, is for a blood and tissue match. Johnson has type A blood, and she has type O.
“I knew that people with type O blood could donate blood to anyone, but I wasn’t sure if I could donate an organ to someone with a different blood type,” she said. “But you can. And the doctors and staff have it down to a science. They can figure out the correct amounts of anti-rejection meds, as well as other medicines to help keep the kidney functioning properly.”
Lee proved to be a match.
“She knew she could trust her inner voice,” Vikki Johnson said.
Price and Laura Lee became part of the UAB kidney chain that is similar to the concept of “paying it forward” with an organ.
This series of transplant surgeries, the nation’s longest chain, has given 34 people a new chance at life.
If someone is willing to be an organ donor for someone, but they aren’t a match, they can still donate for that person by becoming part of the UAB kidney chain.
Lee was a match for Price, but doctors thought there might be someone on the list that she matched better. They also thought the list might contain a better match for Price.
“We talked about it a lot and decided that we did want to proceed with the chain,” Lee said. “Long story short, instead of one successful transplant, you get two.”
Price received a kidney from Tessa, 32, who donated so her father could have his second kidney transplant. She was not a match with her father, so she became part of the chain, and she donated her kidney to someone else in order to find a match for her dad.
Johnson’s surgery was Aug. 27, and Lee’s was Aug. 28.
When she was admitted to the hospital Aug. 27 to have pre-op tests and talk with doctors about the surgery, Johnson’s surgery was taking place.
“Once I was admitted to a room, I was able to run in real quick and see him after he was out of his surgery,” she said. “I know he was in some pain, but I could tell he looked much healthier already. That was such a relief to lay my eyes on him and know everything was good.”
Waiting for a cadaver kidney can sometimes take eight or more years, and there are thousands on the list.
“The kidney chain makes it possible to help those people quicker, and they are receiving a live kidney,” Lee said, adding that the chances of the kidney working for many years is also much greater when someone receives a live kidney.
“In the past 20 to 30 years, kidney transplant surgeries have come so far,” she said. “There was a time where you had to have a sibling or immediate family member be your donor. But now, there’s so many more possibilities.”
Vikki Johnson said the sacrifice Lee made for Price is priceless.
“I believe that she is a very special hero, as are all the donors, especially the ones who are a part of the kidney chain,” she said. “Either donor could have easily backed out, as their person had already had their transplant by the time it was their turn to donate. However, these special people did the honorable thing and went through with the surgery, each saving two lives instead of one.”
Vikki Johnson said one of the UAB doctors remarked that Southerners seem to always go through with their commitment in the kidney chain.
“They have strong values,” Johnson said, “and if they say they are going to do something, they follow through. They stand by their word. I am so grateful to live in a place where people will sacrifice for one another and have integrity.”
Lee said she never considered backing out.
“I think it’s safe to say that all of the other people who have been a part of the kidney chain would say the same thing,” she said. “You’re wanting to help your friend or family member so much that thought or option just isn’t in the realm of things.
“To know that you helped save someone’s life and gave them that second chance is indescribable. I definitely encourage everyone to educate yourself on it.”
Price Johnson is doing well after surgery. He recently traveled to UAB for a five-month checkup. He will return in six months for another.
“It takes a special person to donate because it’s a scary thing to lose an organ and give an organ to someone else,” Vikki Johnson said. “You don’t know how it’s going to affect your life.
“And it takes a brave family to get behind that because Laura has two children and a husband. We knew Laura Lee as more of an acquaintance at the bank. Talk about an everyday hero. When someone steps up to save your life, that’s pretty amazing.”
Price Johnson said recipients in the kidney chain now live fuller lives because of their hero donors.
“You can sacrifice time, money — whatever,” he said. “But to sacrifice an organ and take the risk of surgery to save somebody’s life — it doesn’t get more concrete than that. This kidney chain is really a continuing story of one sacrifice after another, all in the name of love.”
To learn more about the kidney chain, visit: http://www.uab.edu/kidneychain/.