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.
Doctors have two major requirements for living donors: They can’t be at high risk for developing kidney disease, and they have to be healthy enough to withstand the surgery, a roughly three-hour procedure during which one kidney is removed laparoscopically. A donor’s biggest risk is dying from complications caused by the surgery, but with three deaths in every 10,000 cases, according to Segev, the chances of that are extremely low. Because donors generally see a doctor once a year after the surgery and closely track their kidney function, “We suspect they actually become more healthy than if they had not donated,” he says.
When Johns Hopkins informed Strehlow that she was a viable donor, she didn’t hesitate to give the green light. The transplant surgery was scheduled for February 2016, but it had to be delayed because Myers developed an infection. It was rescheduled for April 15, but as that date approached, Myers was retaining fluid, which was compressing one of his lungs and increasing his heart rate. His weight, once 190 pounds, had dropped to 155.
“I really started going downhill as it came close to the transplant time,” he says. “If I hadn’t gotten [it], I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be here.”
Michael Harbridge works for Royal Brush, an art supply company headquartered in Indiana, and knows the Myerses and Strehlows through CCSA. When he heard that his friend Marti was donating a kidney to his friend John, he cried—and wondered what he could do to help. A frequent traveler, he’s accumulated hundreds of thousands of airline miles, which he was thinking of cashing in to take his family to Paris. Instead, he bought round-trip flights for the Strehlows and one of Marti’s friends for the surgery.
Strehlow flew in with her husband the weekend before the second scheduled surgery—her friend was going to fly in the following week—and the Myerses took them to the museums in downtown D.C. The resident of Wausau (population around 40,000) had never been to the Washington area. “I was more nervous about being out in D.C. than the actual kidney part,” she says.
Steve Prichett owned Chesapeake Ceramics in Baltimore at the time. He calls John “the sweetest, most caring person in the world.”
“I had elementary school-age kids at the time, and they would raise money for Habitat for Humanity,” Prichett says. “I’d bring the box into the shop, and John always put in bills—not change,” he says. “My kids would be thrilled.” When he learned that the transplant date had been set, Prichett reserved an Airbnb for the Strehlows in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood, near Johns Hopkins.
The morning of the surgery, Myers had a persistent cough that concerned his doctors enough that they contemplated postponing again. But after determining it was “nothing a healthy kidney couldn’t clear up,” Myers recalls a doctor saying, the transplant started.
After removing Strehlow’s kidney, doctors inserted the organ, roughly the size of a fist, into Myers’ lower abdomen while leaving the nonfunctioning kidneys in place. (That’s standard procedure.) It was sewn to blood vessels that are easy for surgeons to access, and connected to his bladder.
Myers awoke around 5 p.m. in the intensive care unit. His body held one healthy kidney—“my woman part,” he jokes—and he wasn’t coughing anymore. “I felt fantastic,” he says, his face lighting up. “Of course, there were a lot of drugs involved, too.”
Strehlow’s initial post-surgery memory is not as pleasant. “We found out that I’m allergic to almost all pain meds,” she says. “Nobody knew that before. They don’t want you throwing up, so they give you anti-nausea stuff. Then they gave me more pain meds, so I was throwing up again. I’m only a Tylenol girl now.”
The next morning, she managed to stop into Myers’ hospital room. His eyes welled and they hugged, as tightly as they could.
“When we walked around D.C. with them, he was just gray. He didn’t have any color. He couldn’t walk far. He had no energy, you could tell he was ill,” Strehlow says. “After surgery, he had color. You don’t realize how sick somebody is until you see them looking better. It was truly instantaneous.”
“I wanted to take the pain away for her, but I couldn’t,” Myers says. “Having somebody else’s kidney in me is no big deal, but the actual act of giving somebody a body part left me in awe of Marti.”
After a week of recovery in Baltimore, Strehlow flew home. It took about two months until she felt 100 percent again. Aside from three small scars on her abdomen, she has no lasting effects from the procedure. “I’m healthier than I’ve ever been,” she says.
According to Segev, more than 95 percent of people who receive a kidney from a living donor are expected to be doing well a year later. Myers’ transplant was three years ago. He will have to take anti-rejection medicines for the rest of his life, and he still gets a little more tired than he once did, but he’s as healthy and happy today as he was before he got sick.
How do you repay someone who has made such a monumental sacrifice for you? The Myerses have heaped praise on Strehlow, who asks for none, both privately and publicly. But sometimes the simplest messages speak the loudest. Almost a year after the transplant, John and Julya’s oldest daughter, Marcia, got married.
“It was a big, beautiful wedding,” Julya says. “John walked her down the aisle and cried a lot. When they were having their first dance, I snapped a picture of them and texted it to Marti.”
Below the photo she typed, “Thank you for this moment.”
Mike Unger is a writer and editor who grew up in Montgomery County and lives in Baltimore.