A brother’s enduring gift of life
When I was diagnosed with advanced kidney disease at age 29, it came as a shock. Otherwise healthy and athletic, I had gone to the emergency room experiencing fever and back pain. Within a few years, they told me, I would need to start dialysis, unless I could find a donor for a kidney transplant.
This was the early 1980s. Dialysis could keep you alive, but survival rates were not that great. And then—as now—dialysis was a grueling treatment.
Though kidney transplants were no longer rare, they were still revolutionary. Back then, transplanted kidneys usually lasted only about five years. Nevertheless, my entire family volunteered to get tested.
My father was a good match but a cyst on his kidney made him ineligible to donate. My younger brother Gary was both a close enough match and healthy enough to donate, and in November 1982 we underwent transplant surgery.
To prevent my body from rejecting Gary’s kidney, a fistful of drugs every day keeps my immune system suppressed. Even so, three times in the first five years, my body began rejecting the transplant. But I was fortunate—medication adjustments made it possible for me to keep Gary’s kidney. Now, 36 years later, Gary’s kidney is perfectly at home in my body, filtering my blood and keeping me healthy.
I am beyond grateful that Gary was willing to donate his kidney to me, knowing it might last only five years. Gary’s selfless gift has now given me 36 additional years of life—to experience the births of my two children and all the milestones in their lives, including walking my daughter down the aisle at her wedding in October.
As a physician, Gary knew that donating his kidney would fix what was wrong with my body. But neither of us could have known that his kidney would keep going for this long—one of the longest-lasting transplants in the country.
Today, Gary is healthy as ever and still practicing chiropractic medicine. And I’ve had a full and rewarding career, including my current service as Board Chair for the American Kidney Fund, a nonprofit that fights kidney disease on every front—and has helped nearly 1,000 dialysis patients stay insured so they could have transplants this year.
I can never repay Gary for his priceless gift. But every single day I am thankful that he made the decision to give me life.
Bob Tarola is immediate past chair of the American Kidney Fund Board of Trustees.