ST. GEORGE — Shortly after Memorial Day, Las Vegas resident John Evans received a text from his longtime friend, golfing buddy and old BYU classmate, Donald Richardson.
“What’s your blood type?” the text read.
Evans texted back, “Oh, it’s O. … I think it’s O-positive.”
Richardson, who now resides in St. George, knew what he was going to ask for next couldn’t be done over a text.
“I had to call him,” Richardson said. “I wasn’t going to ask for a kidney over a text.”
Not only did Evans quickly say “yes” to giving his kidney to his friend, but it was only a quick three months later that the Air Force Junior ROTC instructor at Pine View High School had his new kidney.
Richardson was one of a state-record 195 organ transplants performed in 2019 by the Intermountain Healthcare Transplant Program, which recently marked the 3,000th transplant performed in Utah since the program began in 1983.
While his was not the milestone transplant, Richardson and Evans still have a story to tell of friendship, generosity and living.
“If you heard the whole story, you would think I made it up,” Richardson, who, like Evans, is 57, said. “I’m a man of faith, and I will tell you straight out, it was not all my doing.”
Whatever the fates, what first brought Richardson and Evans together was a game of pick-up basketball.
The new kids at BYU
It was the 1980 freshman orientation under the shadow of the since-demolished Deseret Towers dorms. Orientation is usually a time where kids from different backgrounds and different states wade into that uncertain pool of getting to know new faces.
Richardson had just arrived in Provo as a true newcomer, having grown up out of state in San Antonio, Texas.
But sometimes you get lucky on that first orientation day and meet a friend who gets you past the awkward introductions and might even become a friend for life. For Richardson, that was when he ran into Evans and his best friend Clark Peterson from Las Vegas on that Deseret Towers basketball court.
“We just hit it off,” Evans said. “I became friends with him and his roommates and a lot of his friends from San Antonio, and then he became friends with all the all the Vegas guys.”
They ended up sitting next to each other through the orientation and would then regularly hang out at the dorms. It turned out they were both born 10 days apart in April 1962.
They didn’t lose touch when going off on their missions, or when, eventually, Evans transferred and finished college at UNLV while Richardson graduated from BYU. They also didn’t lose touch when they each went off to distinctly different careers.
Evans embarked on what has been a 31-year career selling insurance in Las Vegas.
Richardson ended up being in the Air Force for 23 years, which included time as a special operations AC-130 pilot flying approximately 100 combat missions. He was based at Hurlburt Field in Pensacola, Florida, but also went on 35 deployments that included 20 to Afghanistan as well as then-classified missions to South America, South Korea and Bosnia.
Four or five times a year, the constantly moving Air Force major would participate in Red Flag exercises at Las Vegas’ Nellis Air Force Base, and he would almost always get together with Evans.
One time, Evans saw the familiar Nellis caller ID on his cell phone and answered it.
“It says Nellis Air Force Base, and so I knew it was him,” Evans said. “So I just answered and I go, ‘Why are you in town?’ He goes, ‘No, actually, I’m flying over Iraq or Iran somewhere.’”
The reason for the call? Richardson wanted to see if Evans could help him buy a watch on eBay. Neither friend realized that call would not be the strangest request Richardson would ever give over the phone.
“I had to go to the hospital”
The winter had just set in in December 2014, and the normally healthy Richardson was not feeling himself. After wrapping up his service, he was married and raising a family in St. George. He was usually in tip-top shape having never smoked or drank with an Air Force regimen. He had no previous health issues or family history of kidney disease. His body starting to betray him came as a complete surprise.
“I had a couple of bad headaches. My blood pressure was high. I was gaining a lot of weight through water. My fingers were swelling,” Richardson said. “My wife was kind of shocked and said I had to go to hospital.”
Richardson ended up being diagnosed with a rare disease – IgA nephropathy, also called “Berger’s Disease.” The National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD) said the disease is a buildup of antibodies in the kidneys that end up causing them to lose their ability to filter out impurities in the blood.
While rare, it is one of the more common kidney ailments and is more likely to happen in Caucasian males than in any other population.
According to NORD, while Berger’s Disease has no cure, it many times just goes away on its own. In a small percentage of cases, however, it can cause the kidneys to slowly lose function until they can’t function at all.
Richardson was one of those cases.
Progressively getting worse
When they’re functioning normally, kidneys remove 60% of the impurities from blood. But Richardson’s levels kept going down and down.
He was down to 40%, then 35%. It was Memorial Day of last year, and instead of being able to honor his fellow veterans, Richardson was in the intensive care unit at Dixie Regional Medical Center after a spate of intense lethargy and headaches.
His levels were down to 15%.
“It was not good,” Richardson said. “It was a process of sitting there and being mad at the world.”
Doctors decided the next step was dialysis. For someone used to being active, being left to multiple days a week next to a machine for hours was a sentence. But after being good enough to go home and prepare for an eventual dialysis surgery, Richardson was content to make the best of it.
But a week later, Richardson said the severe headaches came back and he was back in the hospital.
His levels were then down to 6%. A more drastic option was needed: A transplant.
“Like a pipe dream”
Finding someone with a compatible kidney is not easy. According to a booklet created for transplant recipients from the University of Michigan Medical Center, a family member has a 25% chance of being an exact match for a donated kidney. For a non-family member, that number drops to 7-8%.
According to Intermountain Healthcare, there are currently 112,752 people nationwide on a waiting list for a life-saving organ transplant, including 778 in Utah alone.
For a kidney, that might mean a waiting time of months when Richardson felt like his time was running out.
And he wasn’t having much success going through family. Nearly a dozen of his old Air Force mates volunteered to be tested with no match. The percentages weren’t looking good for Richardson.
Then he had a low-percentage idea.
“I sat there, and I told my wife, ‘I know this is going to sound crazy, it’s like a pipe dream, but I think I need to text John.’” Richardson said.
But he didn’t do it right away. He didn’t think he could just text a friend asking for a kidney, and he decided not to.
Richardson then laid in the room for a couple of hours, including thoughts that he might be condemned to death. But Richardson said he was overwhelmed with a feeling that he had to try to text Evans.
“What’s your blood type?” he keyed into his phone.
Calling for a kidney
It was June 1, 2019, and Evans was actually on a summer vacation to Mexico when he got the blood type text.
“So, I initially thought when I got the text from him that he was looking for blood, you know, like I was thinking maybe he’s going in for surgery or something,” Evans said. “And so I texted him back and said, ‘Hey, you need blood. I’ll be there tonight. What do you need? I’ll come right over.’”
But after confirming that they shared the same type O-positive blood, Richardson decided to call Evans directly to mention he needed a little bit more than blood.
Evans already knew about the Berger’s Disease, but hearing Richardson get on the line, he suddenly knew it was something more.
“He laid it all out on the line, and he was obviously very emotional,” Evans said. “He just said, ‘Look, I’m not looking for blood.’”
But when someone calls you asking for a kidney, one can’t be expected to come to a decision quickly.
Evans first called his sister who was born with a defective kidney herself.
“I said, ‘Look, you think you’ll ever need a kidney because this is what’s going on.’ And she said, ‘No my other kidney is fine and I’ll be fine.’”
Then Evans weighed the decision with his wife.
“We obviously prayed about it a little bit and stuff. And yeah, the next day I just called him and said, ‘Donald, I want to do it.’”
Transplants take locals up north
For now and the foreseeable future, the Transplant Center at Murray, Utah’s Intermountain Medical Center will remain the place where Southern Utah residents can receive transplants. Retiring Intermountain executive and former CEO Terri Kane recently told St. George News there are no plans to add such services at Dixie Regional Medical Center.
“We probably will never do transplants here because it’s such a small percentage,” Kane said.
It’s not just the extra distance that might be a hurdle for a potential transplant donor and recipient.
For Richardson, he first needed to go through a screening process at the Transplant Center and had to be approved for a transplant. On July 5, he was approved. Richardson had help from nurses and staff at the Transplant Center, who he said streamlined the process and also helped Evans do much of the paperwork needed ahead of time.
Dr. Diane Alonzo, medical director of Intermountain’s abdominal transplant program, said there is no question that those who donate organs like Evans are truly lifesavers.
“These organ donors are the most generous and unselfish people,” Alonzo said. “They inspire me and they push our team to make improvements so we can help more patients get back to life and to their families.”
Among the sacrifices by the donor are a battery of tests, where every step of the way, one might find out they are not compatible to be a donor. Those tests take even longer when one is out of state like Evans.
If he had to do all the testing remotely from Vegas, it might take two months. But in Murray, it would be down to two days of testing. In another stroke of luck, Evans runs his office and had the advantage of setting his own hours.
“I could take the time off and run up to Salt Lake and do all my testing and get all that done,” Evans said.
In the DNA testing, there are 16 markers used. To be compatible, a person needs to match half of them.
Evans matched with 14.
Even then, Evans had to pass a psychological exam. How would he feel if after all the trouble, all the testing, the surgery and the recovery if the transplant still failed?
“I already made the decision,” Evans said. “If it works out, it’s going to be awesome. If it doesn’t, I still made the decision to donate, and I’m good with that.”
Evans passed with flying colors, and there was even more good news for Richardson: He had been fast-tracked and wouldn’t have to wait what can be as many as nine months before a surgery could be scheduled.
“At this point, John and I are ecstatic,” Richardson said.
Then, after an initial date was set for late August, the cancellation of another surgery moved them up even further. Richardson and Evans arrived for surgery on Aug. 20. And at 8 a.m., Evans was wheeled in and one of his kidneys was removed. An hour later, Richardson was rolled in.
His levels at that point were at 2%.
Getting a new kidney
After he was rolled in, Richardson was asked a question.
“They asked if I was I nervous,” Richardson said. “I was in the military. I said, ‘Was anyone going to be shooting at me in there?’ They said no, so I was good to go.”
The surgery itself was the least eventful part of the two friends’ journey, they said. From Richardson’s standpoint, it was, go to sleep, wake up, new kidney. Evans said doctors later commented to him how healthy his kidney looked and how both of their overall health helped to make the surgery flawless. In fact, doctors told both that their transplant was one of the easiest they had ever performed.
Even more flawless were the results. By that night, Richardson’s levels were already at 22%.
While the normal hospital stay requires seven days of recovery after a kidney transplant, Evans was out in three with his levels just 10% below normal at 50%.
He still had to stay in the Salt Lake area for a month with frequent follow-up visits to Intermountain Medical Center. Luckily, another friend allowed him to stay at their house.
That friend was Clark Peterson, the other Las Vegas freshman Richardson met on that BYU dorm basketball court 40 years earlier.
“Clark’s like, ‘Well, since he asked you first for your kidney, to me, the least I could do is give him my house to stay in,’” Evans said of his childhood best friend.
Richardson ended up not having to stay for the entire month. The fast-tracking continued, as he was cleared to go home to St. George after two weeks and two days.
By Oct. 1, he was back at work commanding Junior ROTC to his cadets at Pine View High.
“There are two things I told them. One, I’m very fortunate. Relationships matter. How you treat people matters. If you have relationships (that are) strained, you have to fix them. You never know when you need them,” Richardson said. “Second, you have to take care of your body. Never smoked, never drank. The reason my body has recovered is how I took care of myself before.”
It’s not lost on Evans that it was not only his friend he saved, but the young minds Richardson leads.
“He needs to raise his family, and he does so much with the ROTC up there,” Evans said. “He’s just so good with the young kids, you know, he has a lot more in his life and I was grateful to help.”
Getting new texts
Evans is still getting texts from Richardson, but they’re not asking for his blood type. Richardson has passed all his labs and his levels are staying normal.
“Any time I’m able to do something that I would not have been able to do, I always send him a thank you text,” Richardson said.
Among the things he will be able to do again is leading an annual summer backpacking trip with Salt Lake City’s The Other Side Academy for former convicts and drug addicts looking to reform their lives. He had to miss it last year. This year, Evans is joining him.
Just this last weekend, Evans planned to come into town to spend time with his old friend and his old kidney and attend a fundraiser for Dixie State’s baseball team.
They were going to go golfing.
Those interested in becoming a living organ donor can go to intermountainhealthcare.org/donatelife.
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