Wednesday, July 10, 2019

This is "JK – Just Kidneying:" The Celebrity Edition

So as I was saying to Tracy Morgan not long ago….

Yes, of course I’m namedropping. Morgan, the Saturday Night Live alum, star of the TBS comedy series The Last O.G. and emcee for the 2019 ESPY Awards at 8 p.m/7c Wednesday (July 10) on ESPN, was talking to me over the same cell phone I keep in my back pocket a while back to promote a standup date he was playing in Detroit.
Tracy 'Transplant' Morgan Emcees the 2019 ESPY Awards (ESPN)

Why me, you may ask? (I would.) Well, I’ll tell you. 

It’s because in my many decades as a professional writer, television critic and movie reviewer, I’ve been called upon to conduct thousands of phone interviews with “celebrities.” In the process, I have learned how to navigate the protective layers of managers, publicists, agents and other hired buffers to get my prime target on the horn.

Plus, I have a knack for getting the best out of my subjects. At this age I’m rarely starstruck, and I always do my homework before the interview. 

I’m the ego whisperer.

Not that any of this was working with Morgan. Maybe he was having a bad day. More likely he was prickly over having to do a last-minute phone interview to help heighten interest in his Detroit gig. For whatever reason, it was clear immediately that testy Tracy did not want to be speaking with me that day. 

His answers were short, terse, almost combative. Not that this is particularly unusual where comedians are concerned, in my experience. In fact, one of the reasons I dabbled in standup comedy years ago was to hang out with other comics and try to understand the psyche: how men and women whose job it is to make others laugh until it hurts often seem to be hurting inside themselves.

And so it went, until I remembered my ace in the hole: Morgan and I received our successful kidney transplants the same year. (Like I said, I do my homework.)

I made a sharp left turn in my questioning, noting our kidney coincidence. “How are you feeling?” I blurted out. “Is your kidney still functioning well? How’s your creatinine level?”

Over the phone, I could hear him smile.

“Yeah, my creatinine is low, the kidney’s doing well, and everything is good,” Morgan replied. “We are both survivors.”

“Yes, we are, sir. Your A1c?”

“That’s good, too. And I take my Prograf at the same time every day.”

“I’m on Prograf, too! How many pills do you take?”

“One in the morning, two at night.”

“I take five, twice a day. You must be doing very well.”

“I feel good.”

After the rest of our interview — which went extremely well — concluded and I hung up the phone, it occurred to me: kidney transplant recipients have a language all their own. Who else would ask you about your creatinine level and know what it means?

(If you don’t know, here’s the glossary: creatinine is a compound created in the body and excreted when you pee. The level remaining in your body is an indicator of kidney function. An A1c test measures the amount of sugar in your blood. Prograf is one of several anti-rejection drugs, mandatory for transplant recipients.)

My takeaway: whether big-name celebrity or lowly scribe, the experience of a kidney transplant unites us. We truly are all brothers and sisters under the skin.

In this case, “O.G.” could stand for “Organ. Grateful.” 
*         *         *

The music world — heck, the entire world — is still coming to grips with the announcement by Stevie Wonder last weekend that the Motown maestro is stricken with kidney failure and has a transplant scheduled for September. 
Stevie Wonder Halted His Piano to Talk About His Organ (Getty Images)
“I’m all good, I’m all good, all good,” Wonder told his audience at a concert in London, opting to reveal the news publicly rather than have others speculate on his health. “I have a donor and it’s all good.”

One of my most cherished memories as a music critic in Detroit is spending an afternoon with Wonder and a few of his people many years ago in a penthouse suite at the Renaissance Center. It was several hours before he was scheduled to take the stage, and I remember him sitting at the keyboard of a miniature electric piano, embellishing almost everything he said with musical accompaniment.

It was songs in the key of conversation, a warm and wonderful memory of a warm and wonderful man. Unlike my experience with Aretha Franklin, I don’t believe I ever did anything to piss Stevie off. 

Having gone through what he's about to go through, if I was still sitting across from him at his keyboard and he were to ask for any advice, here’s what I would tell him:

Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing:” The vast majority of kidney transplants are successful with few complications. You have a living donor, which increases the odds of longterm survival. And I’m guessing you have a near-perfect tissue match and a top-notch medical team. You’ll be wonder-ful.

Superstition?” Nah.: If you’ve had any “Why me?” moments — and I’ll bet you have, since almost everybody does — don’t let them linger. Kidney failure is no respecter of persons. It can strike anybody, at any stage of life. And while African Americans seem to be leading the league in terms of kidney problems, primarily because of our predilection for diabetes and high blood pressure, it’s all just God’s will. Believe me, you’ll come through a better person on the other side.

I Just Called to Say I Love You (or, if you prefer, That's What Friends Are For):” Many, many people will be reaching out to you offering help and support. Let them. Both sides will be the better for it.

Major announcements like this tend to refocus national attention on kidney issues and transplantation, and that rising tide lifts all hopes. I know I join millions of music lovers worldwide in praying for a successful September transplant that goes off as scheduled, and for Wonder’s complete return to health.

Kristen Jordan Shamus, health reporter for the Detroit Free Press, penned an extremely detailed and informative article this week, interviewing Dr. Jason Denny of the Center for Living Donation at Henry Ford Health System about what Stevie has to look forward to following surgery and facts about transplantation in general. 

Monday, May 27, 2019

I Guess I'm 'Distinguished' Now. And No, I Can't Believe It Either

A Life Moment I Will Never Forget: Receiving the 2019 Distinguished Alumni Award from Hope College.
Have you ever caught yourself dying to know who you'll see in Heaven? 

(No pun intended.) 

Most folks expect their parents to be there, I suppose, unless they were abominable human beings. But imagine you've finally made it to the Promised Land, strolling around the indescribably gorgeous landscape, when suddenly you look up in disbelief.

"Whoa –YOU made it?" you exclaim. "Ohmigosh! I totally did not see that coming."

That's the exact feeling I have had since last November, when I was notified by telephone that I was one of two recipients of the 2019 Hope College Distinguished Alumni Award, until the night of April 27 when I received the award in a dinner ceremony during my alma mater's Alumni Weekend.

The Distinguished Alumni Award is the highest honor that Hope, a Christian liberal arts college in Holland, Mich., where I matriculated nearly a half-century ago, can bestow on its graduates. As a former member of the college's Alumni Association Board of Directors, which selects the recipients, I was deeply involved for several years in the discussions over who should receive this accolade.

We debated over the credentials of acclaimed theologians, life-changing scientists, barons of business. My 2019 co-recipient, Doug Van Wieren, Ph.D., is a research fellow at Harvard, founded a school of science and technology in Bosnia, and currently serves as a site engineer for Google.

Me? I can use Google.

After numerous calls and artful questions (I am a old reporter, after all), I eventually came to learn I was selected for a number of reasons: my long career as a journalist and author; my devoted support for and involvement with Hope College; and my commitment to kidney disease issues and organ donor awareness following my 2011 kidney transplant.
Hope Calls Me 'Jimmy Mack!' How Touching!

The official criteria, as set forth by the Alumni Association, includes


• Contributions to society through volunteerism
• Achievements within a profession, and
• Active involvement with the college

Well, well, well. I initially thought "distinguished" was just another word for "old," but the vast majority of old Hope grads don't have one of these, so I am deeply appreciative.

Rarely have I felt the love in any room more than I did that April evening in the college's Haworth Inn ballroom. My birth sister and brother, Jacqui and Lionel, both attended the affair with their families. (I was adopted weeks after being born.) More than a dozen members of my campus fraternity Phi Kappa Alpha, the Cosmopolitan Fraternity, came from as far away as San Diego and Maine to show their support. As Joel (Beeker) Slager, my era's frat president, wrote me, "We have to be there, Jimmy Mack. You know our fraternity. This doesn't happen to a Cosmo every day."

I had to chuckle inside while board member Scott Watson introduced me. "I've been on campus most of this week, and all I've heard about is 'Jimmy Mack,'" he said. "One person told me, 'Don't try to be funny when you introduce him. He will be funnier."

No pressure there.

May I let you in on a secret? I was scared you-know-what-less in the minutes before rising to accept the award. Terrified. 

Now, fear of public speaking is a highly unusual emotion for me, a onetime standup comedian, professional communicator and ordained wedding officiant who performs more than 25 marriages a year. But in those instances, I generally don't know the people I'm speaking to. It's a sea of faceless images, often in the dark. 

This night I knew at least three-quarters of the men and women in that ballroom personally. Together they comprised virtually the entire sweep of my life, they were very dear to me, and the lights were up full. I think I was Hoperventilating.

I don't believe my jitters were obvious. In fact, I felt kind of bad for Dr. Van Wieren, who followed me to the podium. He should have gone first. I had been practicing my acceptance speech in my head since the day I received the announcement, I'm a big ham at heart, and once I took the microphone my entertainer genes went into overdrive. 
My Cosmo Brothers Rallied From Coast to Coast. I Was Overwhelmed!

When I finished, my brother Lionel looked at me with mild astonishment. "Jimmy, I did not know you could sell it like that!" he exclaimed. 

I may have been a tough act to follow.

Because several people have asked, and because I'd like a permanent place to keep it, here's a rough transcript of my distinguished remarks, with notes for clarification in blue. 

"Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls of all ages — good evening. [I begin every speech and wedding this way. It's my mental trigger to say, "C'mon, Jimbo –– it's showtime!]

If I may be bold enough to speak for Dr. Van Wieren for a moment, you honor both of us by your presence here this evening.

President and Mrs. Voskuil [interim Hope president Dennis Voskuil, who attended with his wife Betty and received a Meritorious Service Award at the ceremony]… members of the Alumni board… college faculty and staff… Class of ‘69 [celebrating their 50th anniversary]

Family…Friends…Cosmos. Thank you for being with us tonight.

Is this cool, or what? I always said it would be a snowy day in late April before I got an award from Hope College! [A freak spring snowstorm hit Holland that evening; you could see snow falling behind me as I spoke.]

Some of you may not have seen me in a while. This hairy affectation [referring to and touching my gray beard] is the result of being challenged by my teenage son to a No-Shave November competition last year — which I won, by the way — the same month I was notified I would be receiving this award. I saw it as an omen. So I decided to keep it at least until tonight, as my tribute, my homage…to Dutch, mascot of the Flying Dutchmen!

I was going to shave it after tonight, but now my wife, Karen, says she loves it…I don’t know what to do.

And speaking of not knowing what to do, all these months later I’m still more than a bit dumbfounded, because I really do not know why I’m up here this evening. Now Dr. Van Wieren, I completely understand. Why I’m here, I have no idea!

When I received the call last November from [Hope Executive Director of Alumni Engagement] Scott Travis, as fine a young man as it has ever been my honor to know and a true credit to this institution –– and his race –– I remember thinking to myself, 'Scott is an extremely busy man, a dedicated professional with a lot of balls in the air: how does he have the time to call and spoof me like this?'

In fact I remember saying to him, 'Hey, that’s funny, Scott, but really: what can I do for you?' 

You see, for several years I sat on the Alumni Board of Directors that selects the nominees for this highest Hope alumni recognition. We chose world renowned theologians, titans of industry, brilliant scientists. 

I have personally interviewed Kid Rock…and survived.

Look at this man, Dr. Van Wieren, my fellow honoree. He founded an entire school of technology…in Bosnia! He’s been a research fellow at Harvard! He works for Google, for heaven’s sake! Me? And how the heck do you compete with a Van Wieren…at Hope College? [The Van Wieren name is legend at Hope, perhaps led by Glenn Van Wieren, who starred in basketball as an undergrad then coached the team for 33 years.]

It took me 40 years to be hired to write for News From Hope College [the college alumni magazine]. I’ve written for the alumni publications of many colleges and universities I never attended! 

I finally asked, 'Why have you never asked me to write for my own alumni magazine?' They said, 'We thought you were too busy or out of our price range.' Really? Really? Have you never heard of the Dutch discount?

So while I have no idea what you were thinking, my deepest, sincerest thanks to the Alumni Board for this accolade. It should go without saying that it stuns and humbles me more than you can imagine. This I can tell you for sure: I’m not giving It back!

I can think of only one other moment in my life that rivals this one. I was the first — and as far as I know, still the only — graduate from my high school, Spring Lake High in West Michigan (Go Lakers!) to be invited back to deliver the commencement address. 

I hired a limousine — which in Spring Lake, Mich., 30 years ago was no easy task — so I could escort my mother and father [Caribell and Hildry "Mac" McFarlin] to the front door of the school. The high school reserved two seats for them, in the front row right in front of the podium, so I could tell them, in front of an auditorium full of people, how much they meant to me and to thank them for all they had done for me. 

Neither of them made it past the eighth grade, so education was of paramount importance to them. I was going to college! To my knowledge I am the first member of the McFarlin family to attend college. And while they cannot be here in person tonight, I know they are in this room in spirit. Thank you Mom and Dad. I hope you’re proud of me. 

You know, one of the myriad benefits of being a Christian is the heightened perspective you obtain for hindsight. You can look back and say, 'OH, if this hadn’t happened, then that wouldn’t have occurred, and I wouldn’t be here today.' You see the hand of God guiding your journey. 

I had been accepted at Arizona State University, and after growing up engulfed by lake effect snow every winter of my life, four years in Tempe sounded pretty sweet. Although I grew up less than 30 miles from campus, I had never heard of Hope College.

That is, until I received a cold call from a Hope recruiter one afternoon while I was attempting to watch an NFL playoff game on TV. I really wanted to see the game –– the Los Angeles Rams had to play the Minnesota Vikings on the road every December, and I enjoyed watching Roman Gabriel shiver on the frozen sidelines –– but the recruiter just would not shut up

I finally relented. 'All right, I'll come! Talk to my guidance counselor! Set it up and I will visit your campus! Just let me watch the Rams lose!'

I visited Hope the first time on what had to be the heaviest blizzard of that winter. I literally could not see my hand in front of my face! My Hope tour guide would say, 'And over there is our Pine Grove,' and I would reply, 'Yes, that's very nice.' I never actually saw the campus!

I finally was introduced to a professor in the theater department, where I thought I would major. [I eventually became a Communications major, theater minor.] That was the era when the theater department was on the fifth floor of the science building. You had to climb up five flights to see a play. If you weren't knocked over by the scent of formaldehyde from the third floor lab, you could make it to your seats!

I'll never forget, the professor led me to a table with something covered by a large white cloth. 'If you come to Hope,' he said, 'you can be part of this!' He snatched off the sheet to reveal a 3-D model of the still-under-construction DeWitt Cultural Center! He showed me where the theater spaces and rehearsal rooms would be, and declared, 'YOU can be among the first students to build the foundation  of our theater department in this glistening new edifice!' 

That should give you a solid idea of how old I am!

Ultimately I came to Hope because of that new theater building, and because I wanted to be closer to my aging parents. It was the best decision of my life.
The Woman I Literally Would Not Be Here Without: Bewee.

Well, maybe the second best. 

Anyone who saw this year’s Oscar-nominated movie The Wife with Glenn Close understands my next dilemma. My wife, Karen — or as much of America knows her, Bewee, shorthand for 'Best Wife Ever' — admonished me some time ago, 'Do NOT acknowledge me or lavish me with praise in your remarks!' 

'But if I don’t mention you at all, I will seem like an arrogant, ungrateful jerk,' I protested. She said, “That’s OK, Honey. They know you.”

Dr. Walker Parmelee, my best friend and running buddy since kindergarten, is here tonight with his beautiful wife, Gayle. Happy belated birthday, Walk. Forgot to send your card again. Sorry!

My birth sister and brother, Jacqui and Lonnie, are here tonight. Although we did not grow up together, our bond has grown closer with the passage of time and I am so thankful for that. 

My brother needs a new heart. It appears that body parts in our bloodline wear out before their time. While he has my heart in the emotional sense, an organ transplant is needed, the sooner the better. So, if you know anybody who knows somebody.…
A VERY rare photo: Me With My Siblings, Jacqui and Lionel.

My initial plan had been to invite one or two of my Cosmo brothers who live nearby to represent the whole, so I could thank them here for accepting me unconditionally, without reservation, so many years ago. But anyone who knows the 'Mos knows they can’t keep a secret! Lured by the possibility of a free meal, they have come from coast to coast to be with us tonight. 

Rick Hine, my freshman Pull coach and a dear friend to this day, flew in from San Diego just to be here. You’ll always be Hiney to me, Rick. I think it was Joel Slager, who came tonight from Maine, who RSVPd, 'We have to be there, Jimmy Mack. You know our fraternity. This doesn't happen to a Cosmo every day.' 

My brother Gene Haulenbeek, who has been an extremely talented sketch artist since our college days –– and who remains available for parties and corporate functions –– surprised me tonight with this sketch, signed by many of the people here. The award, I expected. This I had no idea about! This means almost as much to me as the award itself. Thank you so much, Geno.
Geno's Memorial Poster. Is this cool, or what?

My college roommate, Sel Harlow, is here. The great Paul Boddy. Ron, Gary, Marty, Ken, Max, Juan. I’m going to forget someone, but If I do, you weren’t that important to me. But seriously, to all of you: my eternal thanks.

You see, this campus was a very different place in the 1970s. 'Diversity' was a word found primarily in the dictionary. Yet as a fraternity pledge — a very controversial decision back in the day among Hope’s small African American population — the Cosmos treated me just as poorly and miserably as every other recruit. And in this day where Greek life has come under so much scrutiny and derision, I think it’s important to at least note the positive side of fraternities and sororities; these gentlemen will be my brothers for life, and I am so grateful for the role they played in helping me mature from boy to man. 

And now, Marqueeta Abbott, a freshman at Hope whom I met tonight, is already working on a nonprofit to benefit the adult children of adoption. Stand up, Ms. Abbott!

As our incoming 14th president, Matt Scogin, said in his introductory video, which I hope you take the time to watch if you haven't already—with his resumé, he should be a distinguished alumnus ––and I quote, 'What Hope offers is an aspiration. As one professor said to me recently, 'We need to make sure that our name is not only a noun, but a verb.' Every other college or university I can think of is named after a person or a geography. Hope is named after an ideal.' 

And that ideal remains strong, vibrant, and endures across generations.

I received an enthusiastic email of congratulations from Jack Ridl, my freshman English professor and one the great influences of my life and my career. 

I received a handwritten card of congratulations in the mail — the mail! Who does that anymore? — from the amazing Tom Renner, who chronicled life on this campus for generations. 

And whenever I would visit campus and run into him, the late, lovable Norm Japinga, ol’ Bunko, would exclaim “Jimmy McFarlin!” and greet me warmly. I still remember sharing the baseball press box with him many years ago and enjoying a sun-splashed chucklefest. 

To this day, whenever I stroll the campus at Hope, invariably I will hear somebody shout out, 'Hey, Jimmy Mack!' I haven’t been a student here for 45 years! Where else in America does that kind of thing happen? Arizona State? I don’t think so! 

If you think it takes place on every university or college campus, you would be what we like to call, 'wrong.' That’s Hope. 

So I choose to view this award not as a validation, but as motivation; not an achievement, but an aspiration. I pray that I have many years, or at least a few months left, to prove myself worthy, or worthier, of this incredible honor. I want to continue to make Hope College proud of me.

Because you see, there are tens of thousands of people around the globe, many sitting right in this room tonight, who are distinguished alumni in their own right, who love Hope College as much as I do. But this much I can guarantee you: you will never find anybody who loves it more. 

Thank you again for this incredible honor, and enjoy the rest of your evening."

Thank you, too, for the standing ovation. A night I will never, ever forget.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Jerome and the Tiger: A Holiday Tale With a VERY Happy Ending


Detroiters Jerome Espy and Bert Tiger Whitehead: Linked for Life
This is a story about a real Christmas miracle.

Or another great reason to go to church.

Or maybe a lesson not to believe everything you've heard about lawyers.

Mostly, though, it's a story about my friend, Jerome Espy, and the priceless, incomparable December gift he has been given through the most unexpected of givers.

And I'd like to think that in some teeny-tiny way, I helped.

You see, I often refer to myself (half) in jest as Kid Kidney or the Kidney Kounselor. That's because I frequently feel like the go-to authority for anybody who has a question about kidneys, dialysis or transplantation. It's an honor, but a heavy responsibility, too.

Since I was a member of the media in Detroit for decades –– "world famous in Detroit," as a Motor City friend used to describe it –– I was encouraged to describe my personal journey from Stage IV kidney failure to a successful organ transplant in publications like HOUR Detroit magazine. And since I remain fairly active in the renal and transplant communities, especially in Illinois where I now reside, I field calls and messages from friends and strangers across two states.

Frightened, confused, disbelieving calls.

Such was the case in 2014, when I received a call from Jerome. We had known each other professionally in Detroit for many years through his work as a top media spokesperson for Comcast, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and other corporations. He had received "the diagnosis," was preparing to go on dialysis and reached out to me for advice and support.

Ecstatic to help. If you know anything about my kidney experience, you know I loudly sang Jerome the praises of peritoneal dialysis (PD), the at-home option I was given and the treatment I credit with saving my life. (If I had to go into a dialysis clinic five hours a day, three times every week, I guarantee you I would not be here today.) 

Much to my gratification, Jerome chose peritoneal dialysis, too. "I've been doing the big PD for three-and-a-half years now," he reminded me. "It became my new normal."

And it might still be his normal if he and his wife, Muriel, hadn't decided to attend a birthday party for their pastor last March 10. "I remember the date because it was a day I wasn't feeling particularly well," Jerome remembers. "I was debating whether or not I even wanted to go, but we had been invited."

Jerome wound up sitting next to an attorney named Bert Tiger Whitehead IV, a men's group leader at the church. They hadn't seen each other for quite some time. When dialysis beats you up physically it's almost impossible to hide the pain, so the conversation quickly rolled around to his health status. 

"I let him know what was going on, told him I was waiting for a kidney," Jerome says. "Without skipping a beat, he said, 'Well, man, if I'm a match I'll give you a kidney.'"

After Jerome picked his jaw out of the dinner salad and thanked Whitehead, reality set in. Those in need of an organ donor know all too well that the compassionate, knee-jerk reaction of many people is, "Hey, I'll give you one of mine." Then they think about the inconvenience, the complications and the pain. Most don't follow through.

However, any man known throughout southeast Michigan as Tiger isn't likely to be lyin' about such a  serious, life-changing offer. Not only did Whitehead follow through with his testing, but he did so ...well, ferociously.

And as it turned out, Tiger was a perfect blood and tissue match. 

Now some of you may say, "What luck that Jerome went to that affair even though he didn't feel like it." "What a coincidence he happened to sit next to a man who offered to give him a kidney." "What good fortune that of all the people in Detroit, Whitehead just happened to be a perfect match." But c'mon, man: it's Christmastime. Even if you don't believe any other time of year, give Baby Jesus and His Dad some props for this, OK?

The transplant could have been performed months ago, but since surgeons would even tell Gandhi to lose some weight before an operation and because Tiger's law practice would fall into a normal slowdown around the holidays, they chose to have it done now. Besides, that gave Whitehead's daughter, Bekah, time to set up a GoFundMe page to help defray post-op expenses for both men, a campaign that blew past its target goal within a month but always can use additional contributions. 
Jerome, Heading Home. (Facebook photo)

On Wednesday, Dec. 12 at the University of Michigan, the Great Exchange took place. Tiger was released (unleashed?) two days later, Jerome the day after that. No complications, no signs of organ rejection or failure. Hallelujah. Both men are resting comfortably at home now, celebrating the Christmas season with family and dear ones.

I don't suppose Jerome and Tiger would mind me excerpting and reposting some of their comments from the GoFundMe page here. And even if they did, I'm doing it anyway. It's not as if either man can chase me down at the moment.

Tiger: "When I learned of Jerome's life with this illness, I just thought that if I could help, I would. God has given me excellent health, and I am glad to share that blessing with my friend, Jerome. I hope Jerome lives a long and healthy life with his new kidney."

Jerome: "My quality of life changed dramatically since I found out I had End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) and was going on dialysis. Before I was diagnosed, I was living a full and vibrant life. I was working in my own business, able to travel and enjoy friends and family, and make it through the day with a modicum of energy. 

"My diagnosis changed all that.

"Having chronic kidney disease is horrible on my body and my energy levels. Dialysis is not normal. It is anything but normal. Throughout the process, my wife, family and I believed solidly that God was going to make a way for me to return to a normal life. 

"Even though I have seen a number of friends die of the same disease over the time I have been on dialysis, I believed the promise God gave me. I stood strong on the Scripture in Psalms 118:17: 'I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done....'

"I don't believe in coincidences, but I do believe in divine intersections. This relatively common birthday party turned into an uncommon miracle for me and my family. To someone who doesn't understand, four years on dialysis may seem like a long time. But in the scope of what God has planned, He had a divine plan put in motion already on March 10.

"It takes a special person to give part of their body to someone else. And I am eternally grateful for the gift Tiger and his family are giving to me. 

"This transplant is going to change my very existence. It will change my overall health, my outlook in general and my focus on life. My God, through Tiger, is saving my life. And I know I will never forget the gift that is being given to me or the idea that there is purpose for God extending my life."

Jerome told me he has been "going around and thanking everyone who had anything to do with helping me along the journey." (Myself included. I'm honored.) He's in the process of finishing a book about his journey. And, like me and many people who have experienced the miracle of an organ transplant, he's looking to give back and become involved in the transplant community. 

"One of the first things I saw when I began this process was the Transplant Games," he says. "I made up my mind that night I was going to set my sights on competing in the 2020 Games at the Meadowlands. It's not a competitive thing, it's just the idea of being able to do it. I know I'll do cycling. I used to swim quite a bit, but I haven't swam in four years. So maybe swimming, and some track and field events as well."

Whatever Jerome attempts, I hope he wins a medal. He deserves it. In fact, both he and Tiger deserve Espy awards.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

HAPPY TRANSPLANTIVERSARY TO ME! (I Didn't Forget This Year!)

Can you even imagine ever forgetting your own birthday?

I have. For several years, I'm embarrassed to admit.

My second birthday, that is.

Anyone who has received the miracle of a kidney transplant, or donated one of his or her organs so that a fellow human being might live, knows exactly what I'm talking about.

Sunday, November 18, marked the seventh anniversary of my kidney transplant at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. My second birthday. Because when I remember how miserably sick I was suffering from Stage IV kidney failure, how dependent I was on the short leash of dialysis, and how my entire body, mind and spirit seemed to gulp from the Fountain of Youth after my surgery scars healed, for me the transplant really was like being born again.

My amazing wife Karen – or "Bewee," for "BestWifeEver," as she is widely known online – was my absolute rock through more than two years of daily dialysis, medical tests and consultations, depression, weakness and disappointments. Together we decided to name my lifesaving new arrival Cheyenne, in part after the donor, in part because my transplant felt like the hero who arrives to save the day in one of those old-time Westerns.
Bewee and Me, Moments After Awaking With Cheyenne.

My kidney came from a six-year-old girl – yes, you read that right – who went to school one day completely healthy, suffered a brain aneurysm on the playground and died on the spot. I can't begin to comprehend the depth of heartbreak, disbelief and devastation her parents must have felt during that time. Yet somehow they mustered the courage and selflessness to ask themselves, "How can our child's brief life benefit others' lives?"

I am beyond thankful that they did. Because not only was her kidney a perfect match for me (your ideal genetic match is not always within your family, contrary to conventional thinking), but thanks to the God-given marvel that is the human body, over the course of a year or so her tiny kidney increased in size within me to accommodate the needs of my (much) larger frame.

Cheyenne not only prolonged my life, she renewed my faith.

However, just as time heals all wounds, it also fades difficult memories, especially when the good times feel so good.

For the first few years post-transplant I viewed 11/18/11 as the most important day of my life, more important even than my actual birthday. (June 15, in case you want to circle your calendar). But year after year of outstanding medical reports –– my creatinine level currently stands at 0.9, a boast only other kidney people truly appreciate –– reductions in my medications, a totally unrestricted diet and an overall sense of well-being could have lulled me into thinking I was a normal healthy person.

In which case I would be a fool.

If that really were the case, would I still be taking two types of anti-rejection pills every single day, or still be required to have my blood drawn every month to check on my kidney function? Would Cheyenne continue to kick or ache every so often, just to remind me she's not original equipment? (Hey, she's only 13, and adopted; she's at that rebellious, awkward age.)

I'm thinking not.

Yet on one recent Nov. 18, I received a four-word text message from Bewee that sent chills through my body.

It simply read, "Happy Transplant Day, Darling!" 

It shocked me, because I had completely forgotten about it.

Does this mean I've become complacent? Uncaring? Ungrateful?

No. I like to think it means just the opposite.

In my view, I have been given a seven-year extension (and counting) on this amazing experience called life. I know that by all rights I should not be here, and every morning when my feet hit the floor I am thankful for one more day. Before my kidney disease and transplant, my focus on every day was never that sharp. That was when I was taking life for granted.

And as I weave through the renal community, attending board meetings for The Renal Network ESRD Network 10, representing the National Kidney Foundation of Illinois, volunteering for Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White's "Life Goes On" initiative, visiting dialysis clinics, talking to kidney patients who are struggling on dialysis or post-transplant, I believe God is using me and my communication skills to offer information and encouragement to others. I guess I've become an advocate.

I'm a living example of what standing on the other side looks like. And I'm determined to remain active in that role for as long as He lets me.

So it's really not that I forget my transplantiversary. It's that the exact date becomes less important because the commitment is ongoing. I would prefer to celebrate what I'm doing than what has been done to me.

However, the first thing I saw this Nov. 18 was a text message from my dear friend, the internationally known evangelist (currently pastoring a church in my mother's hometown of Stone Mountain, Ga., like that's a coincidence), Richard Allen Farmer.

"Happy Transplant Day," it read. "Seven years ago today you were given a new lease on the building that is your body. I am glad you're alive, so you could be my friend."

Awww. So I couldn't forget this year if I wanted to.

Not one day do I ever take Cheyenne, my beloved little lodger, for granted. She wouldn't let me. However, as in all relationships, it's not enough to just think about how much your beloved means to you. You've got to express it as well.

So Happy Second Birthday and Transplantiversary to you, Cheyenne. To us both.

And many more.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CHEYENNE! (Hey, I Didn't Forget This Year!)

Can you even imagine ever forgetting your own birthday?

I have. For several years, I'm embarrassed to admit.

My second birthday, that is.

Anyone who has received the miracle of a kidney transplant, or donated one of his or her organs so that a fellow human being might live, knows exactly what I'm talking about.

This Sunday, November 18, marks the seventh anniversary of my kidney transplant at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. My second birthday. Because when I remember how miserably sick I was suffering from Stage IV kidney failure, how dependent I was on the short leash of dialysis, and how my entire body, mind and spirit seemed to gulp from the Fountain of Youth after my surgery scars healed, for me the transplant really was like being born again.

My amazing wife Karen – or "Bewee," for "BestWifeEver," as she is widely known online – was my absolute rock through more than two years of daily dialysis, medical tests and consultations, depression, weakness and disappointments. Together we decided to name my lifesaving new arrival Cheyenne, in part after the donor, in part because my transplant felt like the hero who arrives to save the day in one of those old-time Westerns.
Bewee and Me, Moments After Awaking With Cheyenne.

My kidney came from a six-year-old girl – yes, you read that right – who went to school one day completely healthy, suffered a brain aneurysm on the playground and died on the spot. I can't begin to comprehend the depth of heartbreak, disbelief and devastation her parents must have felt during that time. Yet somehow they mustered the courage and selflessness to ask themselves, "How can our child's brief life benefit others' lives?"

I am beyond thankful that they did. Because not only was her kidney a perfect match for me (your ideal genetic match is not always within your family, contrary to conventional thinking), but thanks to the God-given marvel that is the human body, over the course of a year or so her tiny kidney increased in size within me to accommodate the needs of my (much) larger frame.

Cheyenne not only prolonged my life, she renewed my faith.

However, just as time heals all wounds, it also fades difficult memories, especially when the good times feel so good.

For the first few years post-transplant I viewed 11/18/11 as the most important day of my life, more important even than my actual birthday. (June 15, in case you want to circle your calendar). But year after year of outstanding medical reports –– my creatinine level currently stands at 0.9, a boast only other kidney people truly appreciate –– reductions in my medications, a totally unrestricted diet and an overall sense of well-being could have lulled me into thinking I was a normal healthy person.

In which case I would be a fool.

If that really were the case, would I still be taking two types of anti-rejection pills every single day, or still be required to have my blood drawn every month to check on my kidney function? Would Cheyenne continue to kick or ache every so often, just to remind me she's not original equipment? (Hey, she's only 13, and adopted; she's at that rebellious, awkward age.)

I'm thinking not.

Yet on one recent Nov. 18, I received a four-word text message from Bewee that sent chills through my body.

It simply read, "Happy Transplant Day, Darling!" 

It shocked me, because I had completely forgotten.

Does this mean I've become complacent? Uncaring? Ungrateful?

No. I like to think it means just the opposite.

In my view, I have been given a seven-year extension (and counting) on this amazing experience called life. I know that by all rights I should not be here, and every morning when my feet hit the floor I am thankful for one more day. Before my kidney disease and transplant, my focus on every day was never that sharp. That was when I was taking life for granted.

And as I weave through the renal community, attending board meetings, volunteering for Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White's "Life Goes On" initiative, visiting dialysis clinics, talking to kidney patients who are struggling on dialysis or post-transplant, I believe God is using me and my communication skills to offer information and encouragement to others. I'm a living example of what standing on the other side looks like. And I'm determined to remain active in that role for as long as He lets me.

So it's really not that I forget my transplantiversary. It's that the exact date becomes less important because the commitment is ongoing. I would prefer to celebrate what I'm doing than what has been done to me.

However, the first thing I saw this Nov. 18 was a text message from my dear friend, the internationally known evangelist (currently pastoring a church in my mother's hometown of Stone Mountain, Ga., like that's a coincidence), Richard Allen Farmer.

"Happy Transplant Day," it read. "Seven years ago today you were given a new lease on the building that is your body. I am glad you're alive, so you could be my friend."

Awww. So I couldn't forget this year if I wanted to.

Not one day do I ever take Cheyenne, my beloved little lodger, for granted. She wouldn't let me. However, as in all relationships, it's not enough to just think about how much your beloved means to you. You've got to express it as well.

So Happy Second Birthday and Transplantiversary to you, Cheyenne. To us both.

And many more.

Friday, August 10, 2018

O Brother, Where Art Thy Heart? Wish I Could Get You a New One

Family Reunion: My Brother Lonnie, Sister Jacqui (Umi), and Me.  
I'll wager even most of my closest friends don't know that I have an older brother.

There are at least two very good reasons for this.

One, to the best of my recollection, none of my friends have ever met him.

And two, I was raised as an only child.

I'm sure those explanations require their own explanations, but before I get to that let me get to this: my brother, Lionel – or Lonnie, or Limabean to his besties – is in desperate need of a heart transplant.

He was diagnosed with congestive heart failure two years ago and currently is on the transplant waiting list at Spectrum Hospital in Grand Rapids. Even when a match is found, however, he still will need additional funds to pay for the hospital expenses and medications his insurance will not cover.

So a GoFundMe account has been established on his behalf in hopes of raising at least $10,000 for his medical bills.

Click here for the link to Lonnie's GoFundMe page. Please give if you can, and generously. Any amount at all is deeply appreciated. And as always, I would never ask you to do something I wouldn't do myself.

And do you find it bizarre and incredible, as I do, that two siblings should grow up to both need organ transplants –– for different organs? What is that, bad blood? Weak cells? Damaged DNA? Whatever the cause, I only pray that my brother may find an organ donor as perfectly matched and life restoring as I did.

And soon.

Which kind of brings us back to where Mr. (Lima) Bean has been all my life. Now, I don't know if this story is completely accurate, but it's the one I was told growing up:

Lonnie and my sister, Jacqui –– better known as Umi (OO-mee) to practically everyone in and around Muskegon, Mich., including her 19 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren –– were very young when our father walked out on them and my birth mother, Josephine. Only Josephine wasn't technically my birth mother at the time, since she was still pregnant with me.
Lonnie and Jacqui. Notice who's not in the shot.

Josephine could barely afford the two kids she had, much less a new rugrat. And while I stand foursquare in favor of a woman's right to choose, I am sooo thankful she made the choice she did, else I would not be here telling you this story. Rather than flush me away, she delivered me and almost immediately put me up for adoption to a wonderful older couple in tiny Spring Lake, Mich., about 15 miles from Muskegon. These were the McFarlins, my Mom and Dad, and a better set of parents you would be hard-pressed to find.

(I never knew my birth father. Wouldn't recognize him if he came into my office right now and poked me in the eye. Although if he tried, since he'd have to be pushing 90 these days, I'm pretty sure I could dodge him.)

Now, here's where a curious thing happened. Because our two towns were so close, and because the McFarlins knew Josephine's parents, my maternal grandparents, very well (that's kind of how the adoption was arranged, practically through a handshake deal), I grew up knowing my birth family, unlike many adopted children. Indeed, we often gathered together to share birthdays, holidays and other special occasions. And for about a week every summer vacation, we would alternate: I would go to Muskegon and stay with Josephine and Jacqui, or Jacqui would come to Spring Lake and visit with us. When you're a little kid, you can't have enough people loving you.

Where is Lionel in all this, you ask? Well, Lonnie was the oldest sibling, the man of the house, and I don't know how much time he spent playing with Jacqui growing up but I know he didn't much have much tolerance for a bespectacled little nerd who showed up once a year, baby brother or no. And Spring Lake was way too slow for his speed. Like most kids, he much preferred to be in the streets, running with his boys, than babysitting some intruder.

So I didn't see much of him. I totally got it. But I remember my "vacation" weeks in Muskegon as terrifying. Josephine was a single mother and had to go to work every day, leaving me in the custody of Jacqui and Lonnie. They weren't what you'd call homebodies.

They had to take me with them, and I recall being left in alleys, stores, strange houses full of people I didn't know...for sheltered Little Jimmy, who'd rather be reading a book through his Coke-bottle glasses or watching cartoons in the living room.... I may still have PTSD.
My brother, Lonnie, today: Take heart. 

But now that we're all old folks, I've grown to respect Lonnie a great deal and the man he's become. He absolutely loves to hunt and fish (how can we possibly be related?), and can no longer fully pursue his passions. His quality of life, indeed the joy of life itself, has been seriously curtailed by his illness and reduced activity level.

My brother has a good heart, emotionally speaking, but the original equipment in his chest is failing him. He needs a new heart, quickly, and the ability to afford all the ancillary equipment and supplies that a transplant requires.

Again, here is the link to the GoFundMe page to support Lionel. Please give if you can; any amount is appreciated.

I know you may not know him, but I do. And he's a good man.