Kidney Donor: Joe Johnson’s Miracle Gift to a Stranger

In life, some things just fall into place. In 2015, Joe Johnson was a 58-year-old retiree, enjoying an easy life of golfing, fishing and aviation (he’s a private pilot). One day, a random online article changed the direction of his life – an article about kidney disease.

Joe knew nothing about kidney disease. He’d never heard a word about it. Curiously, on that particular day, it grabbed his attention right away.

The article described the plight of people on transplant waiting lists, especially kidney transplant waiting lists. “It was disheartening for me to see that there were over 100,000 people waiting on a kidney transplant and that between 4,000 – 5,000 of those will die while waiting.” Joe kept reading – and learned more about living donations.

In that moment, Joe began his journey into kidney donation. “God began to place in me a heartfelt compassion for those on the kidney waiting list,” he says.

Wheels in Motion

A few months later, he learned that a friend at church was scheduled to receive a kidney at Emory — yet another interesting twist to this story. They sat down and talked about the potential transplant – and about kidney disease, dialysis and transplantation in general.

Joe jumped at the chance. He wanted to donate his kidney to this friend – but another donor was already in the wings. But Joe was not deterred. He wanted to help a stranger by donating a kidney. “I felt that God was taking me out of my comfort zone,” he says.

He took the first steps toward becoming a kidney donor at Emory Transplant Center. After the interview process, he moved on to initial blood and urine testing. “As I passed each step, my faith continued to build,” says Joe. Another day of interviews and testing was the last step before making the final decision about becoming a donor. Joe prayed a lot.

“Then, I got the call from my coordinator, Ariana Bell, that I had been approved to donate. I felt like I had won the lottery, I was so happy. I was able to schedule the procedure for 7/29/16,” he says.

A Surprise to Everyone

Up to that point, Joe had kept everything under wraps and only his wife Shannon (“the love of my life”) and a few close friends knew that he wanted to donate.  “I decided to continue to keep things under wraps until a week before the surgery when I shared the news with my church congregation, family and my Facebook friends.”  His three children were at the top of the list — Curtis, age 20; Danielle, age 16; and youngest Zachary, age 12.

Joe’s sudden interest in kidney disease was surprising to everyone, including Joe. He was born in Japan on the island of Okinawa, and is part Japanese and Caucasian. Adopted when just a few months old, Joe never knew his parents’ medical history. Except for his friend at church, he didn’t know anyone who was on dialysis or a transplant waiting list.

And yet, he felt a strong need to donate a kidney.

“My experience at Emory was fantastic”

Joe steadfastly followed through on his commitment. He met plenty of people at the Emory Transplant Center.

“From my initial interview with Dr. Nicole Turgeon and through the entire transplant process, she was amazing,” says Joe. “She was kind, compassionate and was the consummate professional. She answered all my questions and I felt completely at peace with my decision to donate. I am so thankful that she was my surgeon for this procedure.”

While in the midst of testing and preparing to donate, Joe says he “never felt pressure to donate. “In fact, I was told that I could pull out at any time before surgery, but I never doubted my decision to donate.”

The kindness and professionalism of Dr. Turgeon and the rest of the Emory Transplant Center staff made his decision to go forward, very easy, he says. “Now I understand why Emory rates so high as a transplant center.”

“My recovery was very quick”

Joe went into his donation surgery feeling great. “Emory does a good job to make sure donors are in good health before donating. This insures the recipient is receiving the best kidney possible and that the donor recovers quickly, with minimal complications post-surgery.

Dr. Idelberto Raul Badell, who transplanted his kidney into the recipient, paid him a personal visit in the hospital and was “super friendly and encouraging,” says Joe.  “I don’t have enough superlatives to describe the care I received from everyone. I always felt I was in good hands.”

Within 24 hours after surgery, Joe was on minimal pain medication, unhooked from IV’s and walking the transplant floor. A day later, he was out of the hospital and on the road to recovery. Dr. Turgeon had told him to expect about 6 weeks to recover and resume normal activities. “For me, that was about right,” he says. “I am amazed at the human body’s ability to recover so quickly.”

The “Donate Life” flag

Joe didn’t know it – but the day of his surgery, Emory flew the “Donate Life” flag outside the hospital. He was given a replica of that flag. “I felt very humbled to have been honored in such a way. Also, I know that one day my name will appear on the wall honoring donors in the Emory Transplant Center.”

Since then, Emory has nominated Joe for the National Donor Memorial Award for Excellence. “It’s all very humbling,” he says.

Getting Back to Normal

Joe was in good health before his kidney donation – and thinks he might be in even better health today due to healthier eating and drinking lots of water. “I want to keep my remaining kidney as healthy as possible,” he says.

How is his kidney recipient faring? In the hospital, Joe wondered which patient in the nearby rooms had received his kidney. A few months after the surgery, he was invited to meet his recipient.  “It was an exciting day. I was very happy and a little nervous, but thankful my recipient agreed to meet me.”

When Joe’s recipient walked into the room, he had a tremendous feeling of joy. “When he saw me, his smile lit up the room. We shook hands and hugged. He was so thankful and there were tears shed. It was a beautiful and emotional experience.”

They got the recipient’s sister on the phone so she could be part of the meeting. “She was excited, thankful and a strong Christian woman who spoke about praying and God choosing the right person to donate to her brother,” says Joe. “Seeing my recipient’s smile and hearing the thanks coming from his sister made everything I had gone through, worth it.”

They still stay in touch and are planning to meet again in the near future.

A New Path Advocating for Donation

“Donating my kidney has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life,” says Joe. “I don’t feel it was by chance that I came across the article about kidney disease.”

He adds: “If someone had told me 2 years ago I would be donating a kidney to a complete stranger at age 59, I would have told them they were crazy. I feel God has set me on a new path to be an advocate for donation. I told Dr. Turgeon, that if I had an extra kidney to give today, I would not hesitate to do so.”

Joe is now exploring the option of donating bone marrow or stem cells. “We all have the opportunity to save a life or give someone quality of life once again through donation,” he says. “A living donation might not be an option for everyone, but anyone can make a difference by registering to be an organ donor through Donate Life. You never know, it could be the most rewarding experience of your life.”

Emory Transplant Center

To learn more about kidney transplant and Emory Transplant Center’s Living Donor Program, visit emoryhealthcare.org/kidneytransplant.