The Art of Giving
Five years ago, John Myers went to the doctor thinking he had the flu and found out that his kidneys had failed. The Rockville grandpa never imagined that an acquaintance would save his life.
The kidneys’ main function is to remove waste and excess fluid from the body, a process replicated by hemodialysis, during which a patient’s blood is extracted, cleaned by a machine, and then returned to the body. It’s an exhausting but largely pain-free procedure that required Myers to go to the center three times a week for four-hour sessions. He sat in a recliner while he watched TV or read a book, but the treatment proved so draining that keeping his focus was difficult. He’d often nod off. A tech would check on him every 15 minutes.
According to the National Kidney Foundation, the average life expectancy for a person on dialysis is five to 10 years, although many people can live 20 to 30 years. Even after Myers got his fistula and started doing dialysis at home, a more convenient option, his was hardly an enviable existence.
“Poor John Myers, I feel so bad for him. Yet another infection in one of his access points,” Julya posted on Facebook about a month after they started home dialysis. “Back to the dialysis center again last Tuesday & Wednesday – then on Thursday – eight tries with sharps in 3 different locations before he can have dialysis. His arm looks like a pin cushion – one of the few times I’ve ever heard him complain.”
“After [dialysis], you’re just wasted,” says Myers, who was usually too tired to go to the studio with his wife. Ever since they met at a Montgomery County bowling alley three decades ago, the two have been virtually inseparable. They’ve been married for 28 years. Myers worked in the restaurant industry and the newspaper distribution business, but after Julya started her business he became a mainstay in it. He’s always helping out, whether he’s glazing and firing the pottery or answering customers’ questions about the paintings, mosaics or stoneware projects they’re creating.
With much of Julya’s time spent caring for John, they had to cut back the hours at the Rockville art studio, which she eventually had to close in 2015. Their lives fell into a taxing routine. After working a full day at the studio, Julya would come home, start dinner (John was on a restrictive low-potassium, low-sodium diet), and help her husband with dialysis. Although he could stick himself, he needed someone to ensure that the machine was functioning properly. A transplant was his only ticket out.
Myers’ name was added to the national transplant list in December 2014, joining more than 100,000 others at the time. Most were waiting for a kidney. Doctors estimated that it would take five or six years before a kidney from a deceased donor became available, and told Myers that his best shot was to find a living donor who would offer a kidney specifically to him. The human body harbors two kidneys but only needs one, making living donation possible. In 2018, there were 21,167 kidney transplants in the U.S., according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, the Richmond, Virginia-based nonprofit that manages the nation’s organ transplant system under contract with the federal government. Of those, 6,442 involved living donors. In Maryland, 440 kidney transplants were performed last year, 129 with living donors.
Dr. Dorry Segev, director of the Epidemiology Research Group in Organ Transplantation at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, says kidneys from living donors are far preferable to those from deceased individuals. “We estimate a deceased donor kidney will last 10 to 20 years, while one from a living donor will last 20 to 40,” he says. “I would much rather have a living donor with [a] nonmatching blood type than a deceased donor with a matching blood type.”
While it’s no longer necessary for a donor’s blood type to match a recipient’s, doctors prefer that it does. Julya’s blood type and human leukocyte antigen—essentially proteins on human cells that play a role in the regulation of the immune system—didn’t match her husband’s, so she was dubbed a donor of last resort. Because their father has kidney disease, John’s children are viewed as having a higher risk of developing it, so they weren’t tested.
“I am not the kind of person to go out and say, ‘I need a kidney,’ ” Myers says. But his wife is.
For years, John and Julya have been active members of the Contemporary Ceramic Studios Association (CCSA), an industry trade organization for art studio owners all over the world. Julya has served on its board of directors, and they’re both regulars at its annual convention and other events.
When John got sick, she shared their story with the couple’s network of CCSA friends.
“John and Julya are kind of royalty in our business,” says Bonnie Karet, a former studio owner in Florida. “They’re just naturally very giving and helpful. John taught countless people how to load kilns and talked them through all kinds of issues.”
Karet asked for donations to help the couple with increased labor costs at the studio due to John’s absence and the mounting medical bills, and she quickly raised $3,600. When Julya posted a long message on her Facebook page in January 2015 about kidney donation, several people contacted the Johns Hopkins Comprehensive Transplant Center in Baltimore, where John was being treated, to inquire about donating.
Marti Strehlow, 47, was one of them. A Wisconsin native, she and her husband, Mark, own two studios in the Badger State. They got to know John and Julya about a dozen years ago, but only saw them once or twice a year at CCSA events. The couples were more friendly acquaintances than anything.
Still, something about Julya’s post touched Strehlow. She went for an initial blood test, and when her results came back compatible with Myers’, she told her family about her plan. “It wasn’t a big decision in my eyes,” Strehlow says. “I have a husband and kids, too, and if that happened to one of us, I’d want someone to step up, so I figured this was my chance.”
Strehlow had to undergo more tests—physiological and psychological—to ensure that she was a viable donor, so in August 2015 she flew to Maryland for appointments at Johns Hopkins. Before she went, she called Julya.
“We were just astounded,” Julya recalls. “The relief [of] finding out that somebody was reaching the stage where transplant was a possibility was a big deal for both of us, because up until that point it was just a thought. I remember when I told John, he teared up. The thought that somebody would be willing to do that is so overwhelming you can’t even begin to relate to it. It’s like winning the lottery.”