By Jim Morrison, The Patriot Ledger
QUINCY, Mass. — When a new father from Quincy read that his college buddy’s next-door neighbor in Brookline was ill and in desperate need of a kidney, he did what few people would even consider.
He volunteered to be tested to see if he was a match, our news partners at the Patriot Ledger reported.
Ben Johnston, a 32-year-old songwriting student at Berklee College of Music, decided he would donate a major organ to a total stranger.
The man who needed the kidney was Dr. Ferenc “Frank” Jolesz, 67, who was suffering from kidney failure for the second time. His daughter Marta Jolesz donated a kidney to him about seven years earlier.
“There’s a huge shortage of available organs and people are dying every day” Marta Jolesz, 37, said. “The average person is on the waiting list for five to 10 years. Most people don’t have that kind of time. My dad didn’t have that kind of time.”
The Brookline TAB profiled Jolesz and his efforts to find a donor via a website and Facebook last August.
“If the TAB wouldn’t have run the article, I wouldn’t have found out about it,” Johnston said.
“Basically, when I first read about it, I thought, ‘Oh, he’ll have no problem finding a donor,’” Johnston said. “Then, I thought if this person was my father or my father-in-law or someone I cared about, and he didn’t find a donor, I’d probably be angry.”
The idea got lodged in his mind and didn’t go away, and Johnston said he’s not sure why.
“I even waited a few days to tell (my wife),” said Johnston. “I thought it would go away, and it didn’t.”
Johnston’s wife, Heidi, is the pastor of the Faith Lutheran Church in Quincy. She had just started a new job and given birth to the couple’s son, Oliver, two months before. She was not enthusiastic about her husband undergoing a major elective surgery, so she spent about a week contemplating the decision, spiritually.
“Every week I stand up in the pulpit and ask people to step outside their comfort zone and care for people in need,” Heidi Johnston said. “I thought, ‘This is the opportunity that we’ve been given to do that,’ and I thought I should support Ben.”
Ben Johnston did some research and learned that most donors are back on their feet in a couple of months. Also, the hospital staff emphasized that he was free to change his mind at any stage of the testing, which took about two months.
Ben Johnston is composing a song about his organ-donation experience. This is the first verse of what is tentatively titled “Goodbye, Dear Kidney.”
After a third of a century, you up
and left me
Jumped right in to some other man
All my scars are still healing, and
I’ve got the feeling
I won’t be seeing you again
You left a hole deep within in me,
and I’m just beginning
To fill up the space the best that I can
And though sometimes I miss you,
the truth is I wish you
A long happy life with him
So goodbye, goodbye dear kidney
If I start to cry, if my tears don’t dry, forgive me
It’s hard to let you go, but in my heart I know
You’re better off without me
So goodbye, goodbye dear kidney
Heidi said she was with the Jolesz family while Ben and Frank were in the operating room, which was a great comfort. Ben’s surgery went very quickly.
“The kidney started perfusing (taking in blood) instantly,” said Heidi. “We were hugging and crying at Brigham and Women’s. That was incredible. That certainly bonds you. The daughters were in Ben’s hospital (room) rubbing his head and feet.
Jolesz wasn’t able to do a face-to-face interview because of the drugs he is taking to suppress his immune system, but he wrote in an email that he’s feeling much better.
“Ben gave me the gift of life, something that I almost lost,” Jolesz wrote. “Words are not enough to express my gratitude for Ben and Heidi’s selfless act of helping me. My hope is that what they did for me will motivate others to help those in need.”
Ben served two tours of duty in Iraq when he was an officer in the Army. His job was building bridges and other kinds of road construction. He said that he felt ambivalent about his work and the war in general, but donating a kidney was something he’d do again if he could.
It’s now just over two months after the operation and Ben said that except for the occasional pain at the incision, “I’m pretty much back to normal, and to me, that’s such a small amount of time to give someone a new lease on life. I would do it again.
“It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever done. Heidi made me a scrapbook for Christmas, and I get emotional looking at the pictures and reading what his daughters wrote.”
Everybody interviewed for this story said that they hope it encourages more people to donate kidneys.
“Everything aligned for Ben and he was able to give the gift of life to my father and help our family,” said Marta Jolesz. “This journey has been truly unbelievable, and we feel so fortunate to find not only a donor, but a donor like Ben and his family.”