|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.