A Friend in Need
MADISON – How do you ask someone with whom you played softball 20 years ago but had only talked to sporadically since to give you a kidney?
Steve Johnson didn’t have to. His former teammate, Deryl Johnson (no relation), called and offered his kidney without being asked.
Steve and Deryl were both born and raised in Princeton, Illinois, a town of 7,500 roughly 120 miles southwest of Chicago.
“He grew up down the street from us. I’ve known him all my life,” Steve says of Deryl.
But there was a five-year difference in age, so while Steve and Deryl were always friendly as youngsters, they were never close friends. In fact, Steve says Deryl was better friends with Steve’s younger brother because they were only a year apart, and his younger sister Deb, with whom he formed a band in high school.
“I knew Steve pretty well, but we never really hung out together,” Deryl says. “He was just one of those people that made me laugh every time I ran into him.”
While Steve returned to Princeton after college and has lived there since, working for a company that designs and builds air compressors, Deryl began what he refers to as his “endless trek” in 1983, moving to Oregon. His current home is in western New York state, where he lives on a farm with his wife, Louise.
But he visited Princeton often, and during a visit a few years ago learned from his best friend that Steve had been diagnosed with kidney failure and would need a transplant.
“I knew that it was pretty bad, so I called Steve soon after I found out about his problem,” Deryl says. “I offered at that point to help him through donation, if we were compatible.”
“He said, ‘I understand you need a kidney. You can have one of mine,’” Steve says.
Without wife Joy’s insistence, however, Steve may have never even gone to the doctor. She began to notice changes in her husband’s demeanor a couple of years ago.
“His personality changed,” she says. “He was very irritable.”
She recalls an evening later that year when the couple’s daughter, who also lives in Princeton, hit a deer while driving home from the gym. Joy consoled the visibly shaken GeorgeAnn, but Steve was incensed. He demanded to know if she had called the police to report the incident, and bellowed at her when he found out she hadn’t.
“We were walking into the house,” Joy says. “I said, ‘Why did you yell at her like that?’ And he said, ‘I didn’t yell at her.’ I knew something was wrong. It was just not him at all.”
Joy made an appointment with their family physician, which led to the eventual diagnosis of kidney disease. Steve went on dialysis and waited for a suitable donor organ, and at first it appeared the wait would be a short one. Steve’s sister Deb had been tested by a transplant team in Illinois and deemed a perfect match in December 2005. Transplant surgery was scheduled for later that month, but final preparations revealed Deb had kidney stones, which eliminated her as a donor.
“That was two or three days before surgery,” Steve says. “It was devastating.”
That began a string of disappointments during which 19 family members and friends volunteered to donate their kidneys but were eliminated as candidates for one reason or another.
“One by one,” Steve says, shaking his head at the memory. “I was back to square one.”
Steve used the time to log on and research kidney transplant programs across the nation. He focused on the Midwest and called every hospital within a reasonable drive from Princeton. After talking to the UW Hospital transplant team,
Steve and Joy knew Madison was the place they wanted to be.
“I was not scared at all,” Joy says. “I had all the confidence in the world in these doctors and what they were going to do for Steve. I was just at peace.”
But there was still the problem of finding a donor kidney. Enter Deryl, and a second phone call during which he reiterated his initial offer.
“There was really no decision to be made. I knew that if something could be done, then it should be done,” Deryl says, noting that his stepfather died of kidney failure. “I always felt that it was ridiculous to be losing all of these great people to kidney failure when we're all running around with an extra one.”
Steve gladly accepted, and Deryl jumped into his new Corvette and drove from New York to Princeton. From there they went to Madison, and Steve’s arduous journey grew considerably less bumpy.
The December 2006 transplant took about four hours and both donor and recipient were up on their feet, walking the halls of the hospital, a few hours after returning to their rooms. Both men were surprised at how quickly they recovered.
“Steve and I had surgery on Thursday and I was released on Sunday,” Deryl says. “Having surgery at UW was like four days in Hawaii. From the second I arrived I never wanted for anything. All of the staff at UW is top-notch.”
The aftermath of transplant surgery has revealed benefits beyond Steve’s return to health, about which he says, “I’m pretty much back to being a human.” His burgeoning strength has mirrored a renewed and enhanced friendship with Deryl.
“Pretty amazing, is what it is,” Steve says when asked about Deryl’s decision to be a donor. “We talk a lot and it’s been great.”
“After surgery Steve and I talked about a lot of stuff,” Deryl says. “We really didn't slobber over each other too much about all of the mushy stuff. We mainly got to know each other a little better than we did before, and had a great time being beat-up together.”
Date Published: 08/06/2007