Thirty years later, transplanted kidney still doing its job

rfriedman@thestate.comNovember 30, 2013 

Don Gordon is photographed with his brother Jim, who shared a kidney with him 30 years ago.

KIM KIM FOSTER-TOBIN — kkfoster@thestate.com Buy Photo

Thirty years ago, Don Gordon was having a string of bad luck.

“My kidneys had failed, my wife had left me and my dog had died,” he said.

Without missing a beat, he adds, “I still miss that dog.”

Gordon likes to look at life with humor, but his situation 30 years ago was no laughing matter. A congenital bladder defect had damaged his kidneys as a child, and his doctors had told him at age 36 that his best shot at survival was a transplant.

Thirteen people die each day waiting for kidney transplants, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Foregoing the wait by getting a kidney from a compatible family member can be the difference between life and death. For Don, that meant he needed to convince his only brother to be the donor. But even when you’re a salesman by trade like Don, asking for a kidney is no easy task.

“My initial response was no,” said his brother, Jim Gordon, who was 41 at the time. “I had a young family and the whole idea of having major surgery… I thought no, I don’t want to do that.”

It didn’t help that the brothers were drastically different. Though both had graduated from USC, Jim had gone on to serve as a combat aviator in Vietnam before settling down in Chapin to raise a family. Don, the younger and more irreverent of the two, was a two-time divorcee with an inclination for challenging authority.

“We’re like the yin and the yang of brothers,” said Don.

But it was Jim’s faith that helped change his mind. After seeking advice from others during a Bible study class, someone asked him to think about what Jesus would do in his situation.

That was all it took.

The two underwent the procedure on Dec. 7, 1983, at Duke Medical Center.

In Jim’s case, the recovery was a quick one. For Don, it was touch-and-go.

“Everything that could go wrong went wrong except that I did not reject the kidney,” said Don. But after two years, specialists at a center in Minnesota adjusted his medications and he was able to get back to life as usual.

Today, Don is a healthy 66-year-old who routinely rides his bike through his hometown, Forest Acres. It’s been 30 years since the transplant, a milestone many kidney recipients never reach. A kidney from a living donor functions for an average of only 12 to 20 years. The body can reject a transplanted kidney at any time; preventing this requires the lifelong use of drugs that suppress the immune system and make patients more susceptible to illness and infection.

Don tries to make the most of what he considers his “extra” time.

“It ain’t over till the fat lady sings,” he said. “But you’d be surprised how much you can get done while the fat lady is still singing.”

Both brothers agree that the transplant has made them closer, and they’re hopeful that their success story will inspire others to undergo the procedure.

“We’d like to encourage people, both recipients and donors – but particularly donors that are considering a kidney transplant – that it can be done,” said Jim. He says that he has been able to resume life as normal since giving up a kidney, and is confident that others can, too.

“It’s a rewarding experience,” he said, “and physically there’s minimal risk.”

Despite the challenges he’s faced and the uncertainty that comes with a donated kidney, Don maintains a positive attitude. He says that he and Jim have no plans of slowing down.

“It’s not over yet,” Don said. “The fat lady’s singing, and we’re still getting it done.”

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