Thousands of people die waiting for donor organs every year, and Dr. Aji Djamali was worried that the same thing might happen to one of his beloved patients, 68-year-old John Jartz, who has a rare blood type. Jartz desperately needed a new kidney late last year, but he couldn’t find a donor. He was looking at a five to seven-year wait for a cadaver organ.
But Djamali was determined not to let that happen. “We were just about at the end of our conversation when I told him, ‘I know someone with your blood type who might be interested in being your donor,’” the 53-year-old doctor said.
“Who is it?” Jartz asked with enthusiasm.
“And that is when I told him: me,” Djamali said.
Giving a kidney to a patient may sound extreme, but Jartz wasn’t just any patient. The two men had become close friends over the years. They first met when Jartz was a patient of Djamali’s at the UW Health Transplant Center in Madison, Wisconsin. Jartz was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease (PKD), an inherited disorder that causes the kidneys to enlarge and stop working, in 2014.
Jartz remembers having to go on dialysis soon after the diagnosis. He and his wife visited several centers before they found the right one.
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 Dr. Djamali. Jartz looked at his wife as they were driving home to Barrington Hills, Illinois, and said, “We’re done. We found our place.”
Djamali would spend the next several years educating Jartz and his wife about the disease, but they were also building a friendship.
The decision to donate a kidney to his friend ultimately brought Djamali to tears.
“Even now, when I talk about it,” he said, “I get emotional.”
Djamali is a nephrologist who chairs the department of medicine at Maine Medical Center Department, but he soon found himself in a wheelchair being taken into the operating room. A few minutes later, another team worked on transplanting his organ into Jartz.
Djamali wrestled with the idea of being an organ donor for years. He just hadn’t found the right opportunity – until now.
“I was always in awe of people who donated organs,” he says. “It fascinated me. And I soon decided that I didn’t just want to talk the talk. I wanted to walk the walk.”
But he admits his wife wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea.
“Let’s wait until the kids are grown,” she told him at the time. “Then we can talk about it.”
Once his kids had graduated from college and were out of the house, he knew the time was right. Djamali was also worried about his friend, who would likely fare much better if he received a kidney from a living donor rather than a cadaver.
“So I talked to my wife,” he recalls, “and she said, ‘If you want, you can go for it, and I’ll be here to support you.’”
“The matching is really important for how long the kidney will work,” said Josh Mezrich, MD, Djamali’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.”
Looking back, he can’t quite put into words what it is like to donate a part of his body to another person.
“It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe,” Djamali says. “It’s like watching your child being born. It’s just this sensation of freedom, elation and happiness.”
He also wanted to inspire others to do the same.
“Half of the reason was to help John,” says Djamali, who still keeps in touch with Jartz on a daily basis. “But the other reason was to encourage people to help others, to inspire them to consider stepping up and helping the 90,000-plus patients across the nation who are on waiting lists to get a transplant.”