Tony told me his story over the phone.
Tony knew about his hypertension, but he worried more about a stroke than about kidney problems. It never occurred to him that he might end up in renal failure. By the time his doctor convinced him to see a specialist the damage was already done.
In December 2013, Tony, who’d been living with kidney problems for seven years, finally began peritoneal dialysis. Even still, he worked 100 hours a week at his job in the oil fields of Alaska where he lives for three weeks at a time. His creatinine level reached a staggering 21 when he finally began the search for a living donor.
“I never expected anybody to help me, especially someone who wasn’t a relative or close friend,” says Tony.
But someone did step forward to help, a number of people in fact. Unbeknownst to Tony, thirty-eight people contacted the transplant center to be tested, including five co-workers and two managers. Miraculously, there were multiple volunteers approved to donate.
“This dumbfounded me. I always thought I was an asshole. I pull jokes and pranks on people, cut them down. I never mean it of course, but it still surprised me that after all that horsing around, people wanted to help me.”
Despite having so many volunteers, it was actually the first person to step forward, a co-worker named Craig, who became Tony’s donor. It started while the two of them were on the job in Alaska.
“I mentioned to some of the guys that I needed help and that there was this website that potential donors could visit if they wanted to start the prescreening process. Craig came to my room later and told me to give him the address so he could look into donating. I kind of hesitated at first, but then he said his heart was telling him to help me, that he needed to help me. So I gave it to him.”
In March 2014, Craig finished the tests and the transplant center approved him for donation. But Craig couldn’t make the donation until August, which meant five more months of peritoneal dialysis for Tony.
“I didn’t mind,” said Tony. “The man was giving me a kidney. What was I going to do, tell him to hurry up?”
In the five months between March and August, Tony encountered a few obstacles that threatened his transplant. The first was a series of serious infections he suffered in June, a complication of dialysis. He spent a total of ten days in hospital before they got the infections under control. They switched him to hemodialysis and postponed the surgery until September to ensure Tony had enough time to recover, and to help prevent further infections.
Later that summer, Tony suffered a mild heart attack, the result of an abnormal bypass that had formed in his heart. Thankfully, his recovery was quick, and the surgery only got bumped a little bit further to October 2, 2014.
Though everything went off with out a hitch, the experience itself was very difficult for Tony’s wife.
“Her first husband died at the same hospital I was at, so that was pretty scary for her. Thankfully, everything went right.”
Tony didn’t talk much about the transplant itself, but the truth is that the transplant story itself isn’t hte most compelling narrative Tony had; it was the human element that so humbled and moved him [and me as well].
“I’ve truly been blessed with good friends and good people. My lifelong friend, Bobby, is an automechanic who owns his own shop. When I was on dialysis, I couldn’t really do anything, which mad me feel pretty bad. I would often just go to Bobby’s shop to spend time with people.
“There was a retired U.S. Army sergeant named George who always came in and asked how things were going. At one point I told him that while my insurance company had initially agreed to pay for all of Craig’s travel expenses (Craig lived in Alaska) for the donation, they later reneged and said Craig would have to front all the cash. Well, this sergeant said he’d help out. A few days later, he insisted on buying the plane tickets for Craig to come to Nashville. I refused at first, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He said, ‘I don’t want you to pay me back. I want you to help someone else down the road as best you can.’ I’ve taken that with me ever since.”
Tony’s coworkers also demonstrated their charity and altruism. “These were rough-ass oil field workers, tough guys, but man, they really took care of me. While I was out for the surgery, those guys took up a really generous amount of money to help Craig and I with our expenses. My first morning back to work 100 of those guys greeted me in a room with a standing ovation. I’ll always remember that.
“My company was great, too. I know a lot of people have to deal with a lot of financial hardship worse than I did. I was lucky. My company had both short-term and long-term disability and they even took my premiums out of that so I didn’t have to worry about insurance or anything.”
A year and a half on, both Tony and Craig have fully recovered and enjoy good health, both with prognoses for normal, healthy lives. They stay in touch, though Craig now lives in Phoenix and the two don’t see each other in wintry Alaska anymore. This summer, Tony and his wife plan to ride their Harleys from Nashville to Phoenix where they’ll spend some time with Craig and his family.
“What can you ever do to pay this guy back?” says Tony, choking back a rare show of emotion. “You can’t. I got this tattoo of a green ribbon, which says, ‘I wear this for the organ donor who saved my life.’ Of course, that’s not all I did, but I wanted people to know how important this was to me, how important Craig is. But there’s no way I can repay any of the people who helped me. I just can’t thank them enough.”
Asked if he had any advice for people with renal conditions, Tony said this:
“If you have a health problem and your doctor is not getting that problem under control, go somewhere else, get some help. Don’t ignore the problem and act like it’s no big deal.
“And when you pass on, don’t take your organs with you. People need them here.”
Tony also wants to say that he has nothing but great things to say about the folks at the Vanderbilt transplant center, as well as his doctor, Mark Houston. He is tremendously thankful for all of them and what they’ve done for him.
One of the things I enjoyed most about Tony’s story was hearing the genuine gratitude and even awe he feels towards not only Craig, but also towards all of the people who helped him. He often search for the words to describe how thankful he is, and they often eluded him. I could tell from speaking with him that Tony is tough as nails, but that didn’t stop him from emotional, vulnerable moments, which speaks worlds more about his character than his rugged profession. That our entire conversation centered more on the people who helped him than it did on his own experience shows exactly why thirty-eight people stepped forward to help.
Has a kidney transplant touched your life in some way? If you’d like to share your story here, fill out the contact form and I’ll get back to you within a day or two.