2019 Transplant and Organ Donation Calendar: Kerrell Johnson

Kerrell Johnson posing with boxing gloves


Kerrell Johnson couldn’t imagine his life without physical activity. The Roseville, Michigan resident played football in high school and has been dedicated to martial arts as an adult, often spending three hours a day training. In his professional life, it’s imperative that he stay physically fit — he is involved with fugitive recovery (retrieving prisoners who skip bail) and frequently works as a personal bodyguard.


Learn more


UW Health Pancreas Transplant Program


UW Health Kidney Transplant Program

Yet in 2016, Kerrell, now 35, was facing the possibility that he would never be completely healthy again. He suffered from Type 1 diabetes since age 15, and was able to manage it until 2014, when he learned he was in the beginning stages of renal failure.


At that time, he changed his diet, started exercising even more and began taking blood pressure medication. But, because of the demands of his jobs and family, he couldn’t see his doctor as often as he should, and in 2016, he was in complete renal failure. He started dialysis, but it was a miserable experience for him, and he was determined to find a different solution.


Kerrell was evaluated at a transplant center near his home, where doctors told him and his wife, Sarah, that he would be on the wait list for five to seven years before he could receive a combined pancreas/kidney transplant.


“We did not accept that at all,” he says. “We looked for the best kidney doctors in Michigan to get a second opinion, and one doctor told me about the UW Health Transplant Program.”


Once Kerrell and Sarah visited UW Health in July 2017, they knew they had found the right program. “It was so much better,” he says. “You can tell the difference between a hospital that just performs transplants, and one that specializes in transplant. It’s like when you need brakes for your car, and you must decide whether to go to a shop that specializes in brakes, or one that just does brake jobs. When it comes to my life, I’d rather go to someone who specializes in what I need.”


Kerrell received the gift of life with a pancreas and kidney transplant on October 27, 2017. Less than three months later, he started working out at the gym again, and that spring, he was back at the dojo practicing Krav Maga, a form of physical defense.


“Being active before the surgery helped me,” he says, “because my body was healthy. I had a bad kidney, but everything else was great.”


He hopes to soon put his protection skills to work as an officer for the Detroit Police Department. “Now I’m on the path to doing something bigger and better with my life,” he says. “I have a purpose.”


Read more stories from the 2019 transplant calendar