Charlie McFail knew what his brother needed, even if Willie never asked for it. The best gifts are those that are unexpected, and this case is no exception.
Through the donation of one of his kidneys, Charlie gave his older brother the gift of life.
On May 15, doctors at the Transplant Institute at Research Medical Institute in Kansas City performed the operations, first removing one of Charlie’s kidneys and then installing it into Willie’s system. The brothers have made incredible recoveries, and Willie became the first patient at the Transplant Institute to be discharged after only three days.
Willie has a theory about that, however, and it centers on the nursing staff.
“I mean, if they have to take care of Charlie … I think that is why we got kicked out after three days,” he said with a grin. “They were like, ‘This guy’s got to go.’”
Willie was diagnosed as diabetic in 2007. He was working outdoor construction in June 2009 and became dehydrated; it happened again in 2010 and his doctor said his kidneys weren’t recovering.
“At that point, they pretty much said, ‘Your kidneys will fail.’ They were giving me a time-frame of 5, 7, 10 years. Obviously, it went a lot faster,” he said.
On Feb. 4, Willie tried to get out of bed and he couldn’t breathe because his body was full of fluid after his kidneys shut down. He started dialysis at Dialysis Clinic Inc., in Sedalia under the care of Dr. David Wuellner. Willie gushed with praise for Wuellner and the staff at DCI who helped educate him about his need for a kidney transplant and what that would entail. Willie was monitored for three months to see if he was eligible for a transplant, and he and his mother, Janis Green, shared what they were learning, including the living donor program, with family members. But talk of a donation never came up.
“There really wasn’t a conversation,” Willie said. “Through my education, in casual conversation with Charlie and my mom and his wife (Darcy), we were sitting around talking about dialysis, what a drag it is … A couple of days later is when Charlie came in and said, ‘I’m going to go test.’ He didn’t ask me if I wanted him to, it was just, ‘This needs to be taken care of, let’s get it done.’”
Charlie, a Smith-Cotton Junior High physical education teacher and varsity football assistant coach, said while Willie was doing home dialysis, they had a lot of conversations about what he was going through.
“I don’t know that there was any major discussion about, ‘Hey, do you think you could do this?’ He never asked,” Charlie said. “Darcy and I just talked a little bit about it. It feels like it was just kind of put on me by the Lord. ‘Hey, here’s something you gotta do. Just do it.’”
Through the testing, Charlie learned he was a close match with Willie and that they have the same blood type, which makes it easier on the transplant recipient and increases the likelihood the transplant will hold for a longer period of time. Charlie’s physical fitness also helped with the procedures’ success.
“I continue to run and work out and do those things to keep myself in shape, and maybe that was the reason I did it,” he said. “There have been plenty of times that I was running and thought, ‘Why am I doing this stupid stuff? I don’t compete in anything anymore.’ Maybe this is why.”
Charlie was hopeful he would be able to help his brother, but the thought of a physical examination made him nervous.
“I guess I’m a typical male,” he said. “I don’t go to the doctor. The last two times I went to the doctor was to get wax washed out of my ear. One of my biggest concerns was, man, they are going to find something wrong with me and I really don’t want to know about it.”
When I asked Charlie if he was relieved to learn he was a compatible donor, Willie chimed in.
“There was relief from me,” he said, laughing. “I don’t want to sit on this list for two to five years. That is kind of a selfish way of looking at it. But I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s get it going.’”
The brothers are recovering well. Willie will have lab work done twice a week for the next three to six months, and will have follow-up exams at the Transplant Institute monthly for six months; if all goes well, those visits will move to annual checkups. Charlie has to take it easy for a few more weeks then will do six-month, one-year and two-year checkups at the institute, which tracks data on living donors.
The McFails are hopeful their story will encourage people to learn more about organ donation in general and living donor programs in particular. Willie attributes his quick recovery to receiving an organ from a live donor.
“I started urinating as soon as they put that kidney in, I didn’t have any down time,” he said. “It started producing right away. And that is why in three days I was released. That is incredible in itself.”
For Charlie, “The donor program is pretty awesome. It’s a good feeling that you can help somebody in need.” While there is certainly merit in being an end-of-life donor, “being a living donor is more fun, you get to be a part of it. It’s rough for two or three weeks, but it is something you can be proud of.”
Charlie added: “I am overwhelmingly grateful for what people have said and done for us … People have definitely supported us in making this thing happen.”
But it is Charlie’s donation that set everything in motion.
“For a recipient, it is just phenomenal,” Willie said, “to get that gift of life.”