One Man Was in Desperate Need of a Kidney Transplant—Then His Longtime Friend Realized He Was a Match
Jim almost didn't attend the reunion with his Air Force buddies. His decision to go saved his life.
As an Air Force pilot in Vietnam, Jim McGee flew 471 combat missions and earned three Distinguished Flying Crosses. When he served as the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, from 2007 to 2009, he defied the murderous regime of then-president Robert Mugabe, who threatened him with expulsion.
But after Jim retired from the foreign service, he encountered a problem no amount of courage or diplomacy could solve. In 2017, he found himself exhausted during a trip to South Africa. When he came home to Sarasota, Florida, he went to see a nephrologist. “The reason I was fatigued,” Jim says, “was that my kidneys were gone.”
Jim, 69, immediately started dialysis three days a week, but his long-term prognosis wasn’t good. A person his age on dialysis usually lives only about four years. Transplants are a long-shot alternative. The National Kidney Foundation estimates that 13 people die every day while waiting for a donor with the right blood and tissue types.
Jim’s wife, Shirley McGee, was a match, and his 37-year-old nephew, a police detective in great shape, also stepped up. But their kidney functions weren’t strong enough. Four family friends offered but weren’t a match. Desperate, Shirley had T-shirts made up that said: “I’m in need of a donor.” Her husband would wear one whenever he went to downtown Sarasota. No luck. Jim was so discouraged that, in early 2018, he was even considering not attending a reunion of some Air Force buddies in Monterey, California.
“I said, ‘Is this really worth going out to Monterey to sit in dialysis for two days?’” Jim recalls. “And my wife said, ‘Yeah, come on. You really want to see your friends.’ And boy, am I glad I made that decision.”
At a bed-and-breakfast in California, Jim reunited with six fellow airmen, including one he hadn’t seen in nearly 50 years: Doug Coffman. The two had met when they both were learning Vietnamese in a nine-month immersion course at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey before they went overseas. Jim told Doug and his other comrades about his predicament. “I asked him what his blood type is, and he said, ‘O positive,’” says Doug, an author who lives in Eugene, Oregon. “Well, that happens to be my blood type. I was immediately thinking, ‘Gosh, I might be able to help.’” (Here are more reasons why everyone should know their blood type.)
Doug, then 70, knew from regular visits to his doctor that he was healthy and vigorous. He also felt a strong bond with his band of brothers, even though he hadn’t seen some of them in decades. Their connection went beyond the battlefield in ways most soldiers never experience.
After entering the Air Force in the ’60s and serving for three years, Doug decided to register as a conscientious objector, an unusual decision by an active-duty military person. He continued to serve while waiting for his case to be heard. In the meantime, a member of his unit wrote a letter supporting his petition to become a conscientious objector.
“I’ve always appreciated that some of those fellows helped me during my time of need,” says Doug, who won his case after a few months and was reassigned to noncombatant status in the United States. “So I felt like this was a time that I could pay that ahead and continue that bond into the future,” he says.
But could he? When Doug confided to Shirley that he wanted to donate a kidney, she thanked him but said her guess was that doctors would tell Doug what they had told her: You’re too old.
“And I said, ‘All I know is that I’ve got two really good kidneys, so I’d like to give this a go,’” Doug recalls. He immediately had his doctor send his medical records to Georgetown University Medical Center, where Jim was being treated.
Within a month of their Air Force reunion, Doug was cleared for major testing. He flew to Washington, DC, in mid-August, where he underwent five days of MRIs, EKGs, CT scans, urinalysis, and more. Jim was grateful but didn’t want to get his hopes up. “Until we heard those final results that yes, you are an absolute match, I didn’t want to get too crazy,” Jim says. “Because the letdown is severe.”
The testing revealed not only that Doug’s tissue type matched Jim’s but also that he had the kidneys of a 35-year-old. His secret? “I just lead a good, clean life,” Doug says. “Just the usual stuff to stay healthy.” (For instance, avoid these innocent mistakes that put your kidneys in trouble.)
When the doctors gave him the OK to donate, Doug immediately called Jim, then asked for the first surgery date available. Jim and Shirley put their dog in the car and drove up to Washington, D.C.
On September 18, 2018, Doug and Jim sat side by side in hospital gowns on adjoining beds. Doug went into surgery at 7:30 a.m.; Jim followed at 9:30 a.m. By noon, they were both in the recovery room. The transplant was a success. “It’s pretty miraculous to be able to take an organ out of one person’s body—a living organ—put it in another person’s body, and have it work,” Doug says. “And there’s nothing finer than knowing I’ve helped another person live a better life.”
Next, check out how pigs might one day be unlikely organ donors for humans.
- The National Kidney Foundation: "Organ Donation and Transplantation Statistics"