Updated 9:30 a.m. April 14: Mike Sheehan reports by email, “The surgeries went very well with Brad having an immediately positive response to his new but slightly used kidney. I was released yesterday and I'm doing well. Brad is expected to be released tomorrow.” See photo.
By Dave Jones
Two days from now, Mike Sheehan, director of Facilities Services in Student Housing, will be in Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, donating a kidney to a college buddy.
"This story isn’t about me," Sheehan is quick to say. It’s about his desire to tell others of the opportunity they may have to give a kidney to a family member, friend or stranger, near or far.
Last year in the United States there were 14,029 kidney transplants, a third of them with living donors, mostly family members, according to statistics compiled by the National Kidney Foundation.
But there are nearly 100,000 people on the national waiting list — people like Connecticut schoolteacher and father of two Brad Vernet, 48, subject of the Facebook page “Help Brad Find a Kidney.” He’s from a small family, thereby limiting his pool of potential donors, who either didn’t match with Brad or had health issues of their own.
That’s where the 48-year-old Sheehan comes in. He’s giving the 48-year-old Brad a kidney, on Thursday (April 10).
“I’ve been blessed in my life,” Sheehan said, “to have really strong, lasting friendships” in Davis and across the country, going back to grade school and high school in Bridgeport, Conn., and Springfield College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1987.
One of those friendships is with Vernet. He and Sheehan met at college, in Springfield, Mass., almost 30 years ago. “My memories of Mike from our Springfield College days are that he was and is just an all-around great guy,” Vernet said by email.
They hung around, played intramurals, attended concerts — did “the normal college activities,” Sheehan said.
They lived in a dorm together their junior year. “We had a very strong floor community … with all of us bonding well and spending a lot of time together,” Sheehan recalled. “That transitioned into senior year, too.”
(Sheehan, by the way, turned his dorm community-building skills into a career in Student Housing — starting as a resident director at UC Davis in 1989.)
The summer after graduation, Sheehan and Vernet took a two-week trip to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the college buddies have stayed connected — Vernet on the East Coast and Sheehan in Davis, where he moved after receiving a master’s degree in higher education at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
Hanging on for nearly a year
Vernet has only one kidney (he was born that way) and is suffering from chronic kidney disease. His kidney function started to decline dramatically in the last two years — and today stands at 8 percent.
“I could be on dialysis at this point, but I am hanging on until the transplant,” he said.
The seventh-grade science teacher has been hanging on through a near-one-year-long search for a living donor. That’s the optimum solution: A live kidney can last nearly twice as long, an average of 15 to 20 years, according to Michelle Sturges, a transplant coordinator at the UC Davis Transplant Center.
Tom Murray, who went to college with Vernet and Sheehan, stepped up as a potential donor and started undergoing the required tests: blood, tissue and more. And he relayed word to Sheehan about Vernet’s dire situation.
Sheehan discussed it with his wife, Julie, after which Sheehan volunteered. “When I made the decision, I had a feeling it would be me,” he said.
Back in Boston, Murray made it partway through the testing before being eliminated. Here in California, Sheehan was looking good in his tests — so good that a month ago Brigham and Women’s brought him to Boston for final tests, a meeting with a social worker and an evaluation by an independent nephrologist.
“I purposely had not told Brad that I was in the process of being tested,” Sheehan said. His friend had already been disappointed when Murray was eliminated.
Sheehan and his wife were back home in Dixon when they learned Mike had been approved. He called Brad on March 9.
After chatting and pacing for 20 minutes, Sheehan gave Vernet the news. “He said, ‘No way!’ and I said, ‘Way!” in the vernacular of their college days, Sheehan said.
“I had no idea that it would be Mike, it was a great surprise,” Vernet said. “I am honored and very grateful to be receiving a kidney from Mike.”
Sheehan then told his UC Davis colleagues: “While I am anxious, I have an overall sense that this is the right decision and I feel blessed to be able to help Brad,” he wrote in an email.
Soon the news went up on the “Help Brad Find a Kidney” Facebook page, and the comments poured in:
“The power of friendship,” Stacy Cox wrote.
“Omg! Mike Sheehan is one of my favorite SC alumni,” Bonnie Cox wrote. “And now I have an even greater reason to love him!”
“Mike Sheehan … you’re an amazing man,” Carol Young-Ort wrote.
And this from Sheehan’s aunt Karen Delucas: “I have to say that neither my sons nor I were very surprised to hear of his intentions — that’s just Mike. He is a special gift to all our family!”
Husband, dad and teacher
Now Sheehan is a special gift to the Vernet family.
“In life there are few opportunities where you can have this significant an impact,” Sheehan said. “You can give someone 20 to 25 more years to be a husband, a dad and a teacher (without going on dialysis), or you can see him wait until his name comes up on the waiting list.”
Indeed, the gift “means the world to me and my family,” Vernet said.
“My daughter is a high school junior in the process of planning for college, and my son is an active seventh-grader. My wife and I are both teachers. This is a very active time for our family, and as my kidney disease has progressed over the last six months it has been difficult to keep up with, contribute to and enjoy all the important aspects of family life."
Sheehan said, "To me, it didn’t seem like much of a decision.” Still, he evaluated the risk, and he is managing it within himself.
Sturges, at the UC Davis Transplant Center, said a live kidney donor faces no higher risk of developing kidney disease than a nondonor of the same age, ethnic and gender group.
Just as donors may wonder about his or her risk, patients are hesitant to ask family or friends for kidneys, fearing the donors’ health will be jeopardized, Sturges said
Not so, she repeated, adding that there is a great need for education on this point.
"The single risk to donors that they need to understand is that if they have a trauma or a tumor that impacts one kidney, they would have no backup," Sturges said. "If this were to happen to a prior living donor (or if they develop medical kidney disease), they receive priority in the national transplant allocation system should they ever need a transplant later in life."
Sheehan, as part of his own research, consulted with Sturges and his father-in-law, Professor Emeritus Hibbard Williams, an endocrinologist who served as the second dean of the UC Davis School of Medicine. Sheehan also has the support of his wife and mother.
And now he is letting people know about the living donor transplant process. "Relying just on family doesn’t always work” for people who need kidneys, he said.
‘Be a Living Donor’
The UC Davis Transplant Center is promoting the cause with a “Be a Living Donor” button on the center’s website. “We felt it would be a good visual and a call to action for people visiting our website to learn more about this transplant option, which has better results than deceased donor transplant,” Sturges said.
“Patients are very creative in dealing with the question of how to ask,” Sturges said. “We tell patients to look to the person they consider their ‘go-to’ person, someone who can advocate for them if they feel uncomfortable asking someone to consider donation.”
Sometimes it’s a stranger who steps up, sometimes it’s a friend you’ve had for 30 years. Someone like Mike Sheehan.
Live Kidney Donation brochure (for download)