April 8, 2016 | For Jeff Johnson, the decision to give his older brother, James, a kidney was a no-brainer.
It was a decision the 48-year-old had made 31 years earlier when their father underwent a kidney transplant at UAMS with an organ donated by one of his brothers.
Jeff Johnson (right) said he made a pact with his brother, James, years ago that if either of them every needed a kidney, the other would supply it. Like James, the brothers’ father had polycystic kidney disease and received a life-saving kidney from one of his siblings.
James Johnson Sr., along with another of his five siblings, was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease (PKD), a genetic disorder in which cysts grow in the kidneys, killing out the healthy tissue and eventually causing the kidneys to fail.
“At that time, James and I made a commitment to each other that if you need one, I have one for you,” Jeff said. “So really for most of my life, I’ve known it was a possibility. I kind of feel like it is one of my purposes in life to be able to do that for him.”
James Johnson Jr., 52, was diagnosed with PKD in 1993 after his wife, Sherry, gave birth to their first child.
“There wasn’t really anything they could do for it, so we basically just monitored it,” he said.
The monitoring continued for 21 years until October 2014 when James’ kidneys started to show signs of failure. He was anemic and fatigued. As his kidneys struggled to filter his blood, toxins began to build up and affect his thought processes to the point where he struggled to perform simple math problems.
“I knew I was smarter than that, so that is when it became clear to me that I had to get something done,” he said.
Gerardo Tamayo, M.D., (left) was one of two surgeons involved in the dual operation, transplanting the kidney into James Johnson.
James started dialysis in January 2015, and then in November, UAMS transplant surgeon Gary Barone, M.D., removed both of James’ kidneys. They were the size of footballs and each weighed approximately 5 pounds. A healthy kidney is about the size of a fist.
Barone also removed James’ gallbladder and appendix to reduce the chance of complications once he had his new kidney.
Then on Feb. 3, 2016, it was time for the transplant.
The procedure required two transplant surgeons. Daniel Borja-Cacho, M.D., harvested Jeff’s kidney, and Gerardo Tamayo, M.D., transplanted it into James.
A back-to-back surgery like this one is really ideal, said Tamayo. Because the donor and recipient are at the same hospital and undergoing surgery at approximately the same time, the kidney isn’t out of a body for very long, which improves the transplant outcome significantly.
Tamayo said he can’t stress enough the importance of organ donation.
“The need for organs in general, not only kidneys, in the United States and around the world is very large right now,” he said. “One of the advantages of the kidneys is we can use a living donor. We just remove a kidney from a donor who can live a perfectly normal life with just one kidney.”
Jeff said he was struck by the changes that have occurred in transplant surgery practices in the past 31 years. When their father received his kidney, he was in isolation for two weeks.
“Our family sat outside the door because we couldn’t go in and see our dad,” said Jeff.
The Johnson brothers saw each other immediately before and after the surgeries. Jeff visited James in pre-op, and nurses wheeled James into Jeff's room after the transplant surgery.
This time around, there were no days in isolation.
“The cool thing about our surgery, the nurses brought James by my room on the way back from the operating room, said Jeff. “It was really good to see that he was OK. And he got to wake up and see that I was OK.”
Their hospital stay was also much shorter than it was for their father and uncle. Jeff spent four days in the hospital while James stayed for five days.
More than a month after the surgery, both brothers say they feel great. Jeff has returned to work at UAMS, while James is enjoying his new life — a life that is free of dialysis and its many restrictions.
“This whole experience has been amazing, and a great opportunity for me and my family to be able to give back to my brother,” Jeff said. “He’s my big brother. He’s taken care of me all of my life. Now it’s my time to be able to take care of him.”
James Johnson said he has his life back, thanks to his brother's generous gift of a kidney.
For James, one of his greatest joys right now is eating and drinking the foods and beverages that he wasn’t able to have for 17 months. While on dialysis, he was limited to 32 ounces of fluids a day, an amount that included liquids in food.
“Anything I couldn’t eat and drink while I was on dialysis, I’ve eaten and drunk. Food just tastes so much better now,” he said.
Beyond food restrictions, his kidney disease and dialysis forced other lifestyle changes, James said.
“We got where we couldn’t go anywhere, we couldn’t travel anyplace because of my health,” he said.
All of that is changing.
“Now I’ve got my life back,” James said. “Feb. 3 was like a new birthday.”