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As a young doctor-in-training, Dr. Aji Djamali was fascinated by the idea that one person’s selfless gift could change another person’s life.
When he began his medical residency in France, he found a mentor he truly admired, Dr. Georges Mourad, a transplant nephrologist (kidney doctor) who frequently talked about the wonders of organ donation.
Aji went on to become a transplant nephrologist himself and lead programs at the UW Health Transplant Center and served as chief of the division of nephrology in the departments of medicine and surgery at UW School of Medicine and Public Health. As he performed transplant evaluations on patients, an idea that had formed in his mind during medical school grew in importance the more patients he saw. He decided he wanted to donate one of his kidneys to someone who needed a transplant. “I wanted to ‘walk the walk’ and make a difference,” he says.
There were a few considerations that affected the timing: He and his wife, Shawn, had three young children, ages 6, 4 and 2, and a very busy life that left little room to undergo the elective surgery. Shawn supported his decision but asked that he wait until his children were grown before moving forward with his plan.
Finding their place
In 2014, John Jartz was fervently researching his new diagnosis, polycystic kidney disease, an inherited disorder in which clusters of cysts on the kidneys cause them to enlarge and eventually stop working. He learned he would soon need to go on dialysis, a procedure that is necessary to remove waste products from blood. He and his wife, Kathy, started visiting renowned transplant centers in the Midwest in hopes of finding a nephrologist he could trust who would help him learn more about transplantation.
They talked to caregivers at one center, but quickly dismissed it because it was too “factory-like.” When they visited the UW Health Transplant Center, they spent four hours conversing with doctors and members of the transplant team—including Aji. John looked at Kathy as they were driving home to Barrington Hills, Illinois, and said, “We’re done. We found our place.”
Over the next two years, John saw Aji during clinic appointments. They talked about how his disease was progressing, yes, but they also shared personal stories and discovered they had much in common, including the same sense of humor. Both men love to travel, and they swapped stories about the places they had been.
They were building a friendship.
While Djamali had become very close to Jartz he felt his primary care should be transferred to Gauri Bhutani, MD, a nephrologist at University Hospital who specializes in polycystic kidney disease. John asked Aji to stay up-to-date on his care and whenever John came to Madison for an appointment, he requested that his friend, Aji, join his doctor, Gauri, for a visit or meal with him to talk about his care. “I was a big believer that having the two of them in the same room with Kathy and me was incredibly important, so I could learn more about my disease and treatment,” says John.
These informal meetings—which included plenty of good food and sharing about their personal lives—continued over the next several years, and by 2019, it was clear that John needed a kidney transplant. Studies have shown patients who receive kidneys from living donors have better outcomes than those who receive deceased donor kidneys, so John decided living donation was the way to go. Kathy wanted to be his donor, but she didn’t qualify because of health issues. John spread the word among family, friends and acquaintances that he was looking for a kidney donor and wrote a Facebook post telling his story. His blood type is B, which means that ideally, he was looking for a donor with the same somewhat rare blood type. Although he knew he could receive an O blood type donor kidney or participate in a kidney “swap” in which his donor gave to someone and John received a kidney in return, he hoped for a direct donation.
At the end of 2021, Aji informed John he was leaving UW Health to lead the department of medicine at Maine Medical Center. The friends met for one last meal to say goodbye, a difficult conversation given how close they had become. At the end, Aji told John he thought he knew someone with a B blood type who could be his donor. “I looked him in the eye and said, ‘It’s me,’” said Aji.
Walking the walk
John was speechless. He felt a close relationship with Aji but had never expected him to step up as a donor. Ultimately, there was a potential donor list of 10 people—including Aji, whose youngest daughter was in the middle of her freshman year of college. UW Health began evaluating the donors one at a time, and Aji learned he was almost a perfect match for John.
“The matching is really important for how long the kidney will work,” says Josh Mezrich, MD, Aji’s transplant surgeon and former colleague at UW Health. “Aji is a healthy guy, and he’s lived a healthy lifestyle. I would expect this beautiful kidney- that is so closely matched- to last many years, hopefully for the rest of John’s life.”
While John, a retired attorney for Quaker Oats Company in Chicago, never had to undergo dialysis, his health had deteriorated over the years. Most of all, he felt extremely tired before the surgery. But he wasn’t anxious. “The UW Health Transplant Center is clearly one of the best programs in the country, and I had a great team behind me,” he says.
On the morning of June 29, Aji’s right kidney was removed through a small incision using a laparoscope. By the early afternoon Aji was relaxing in his room drinking a cup of cranberry juice, when John’s transplant surgeon, Dixon Kaufman, Director of the UW Heath Transplant Center, released the clamps on his new kidney. It immediately began making urine. As Aji waits to return to full health, he wants to spread the word far and wide that organ donation is safe and the right thing to do.
“Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow,” he says. “I have not hesitated a single second about whether I should donate my kidney. It’s very important to me that I live my life fully and share what is important to me. I want to inspire and encourage people.”