When dialysis patient Marvin Owens answered the phone one Friday afternoon last August, he thought the person from Keck Medical Center of USC called to tell him that he’d forgotten to do a a lab test. But after a bit of small talk, she got to the real reason for her call:
“I have a kidney for you,” she said. “Do you accept it?”
The question sent Owens, 63, reeling. The former mortgage banker, a tall African- American with salt and pepper hair, had been waiting five years to hear those words—ever since he’d started dialysis in March 2008. The machine had performed the life-saving function his kidneys could no longer do: Taking waste and excess water out of his blood, and keeping his electrolytes and minerals at proper levels. But the regimen demanded that he sit hooked up to a machine for four hours at a time, three days a week. He spent much of the rest of the day recovering.
Going on dialysis was only the most recent of health setbacks the former athlete faced over the years, starting with a pro-football injury that resulted in a detached retina in the early 1980s; followed by a stroke and the onset of diabetes in the 90s; and then a heart attack a decade later. A procedure used to diagnose his heart caused his kidneys to fail. After more than five years of faithfully going in for pre-dawn dialysis, Owens began to give up hope that things would ever turn around for him. When the phone call finally came, Owens got so emotional that he couldn’t find the words to respond to the question.
His wife, Romell Foster Owens, had been working in the next room of their Diamond Bar, CA, home, when she heard husband break down in tears. She assumed a family member had died, and rushed in to find out what happened. Owens handed the phone to her.
“We have a kidney for him,” Romell remembered the woman saying, which was followed by: “How soon can you get here?”
The couple quickly pulled together a few personal items, and then hopped on the Interstate 10 freeway heading to the hospital in East Los Angeles. The traffic gods smiled and what could easily have been an hour commute at 3 p.m., took only 35 minutes. As Romell drove, Owens texted their daughter and son, a brother who lives nearby, and his best friend, to tell them all to head to at the hospital.
Later they reached out to Owens’ surviving siblings, four brothers and two sisters out of 10 children, who also began to make their way up to East Los Angeles from Orange County. Owens lost his eldest sister, Larence, to Type 1 diabetes in 1997, after her condition progressed to a point where she needed to have both legs amputated. After that, she refused further treatment and “within a week or two passed away,” Owens recalled. “Going through dialysis, I thought of her a lot. [Growing up], she’d taught me how to write and read.”
At the hospital, Owens was checked in, assigned a room and changed into a gown in preparation for surgery late that night; he spent the rest of the afternoon undergoing tests to make sure the kidney they’d identified was indeed a genetic match, and that his body was likely to accept it. It turned out that the compatibility was so good that the organ “could have come from one of my brothers,” said Owens. The donor was another African-American man—several years younger—who’d suffered an aneurysm.
Most on Organ List Need Kidney
Though Owens waited more than half a decade for an organ, he’s one of the lucky ones, according to Elena de la Cruz of the One Legacy organization. “The average wait time for a kidney is 9 years, but sometimes is does not arrive in time. Every day, 18 people die in the U.S. waiting for a transplant,” she said.
Since a dialysis machine can perform the basic functions of the kidneys, patients are better able to endure the wait. Yet dialysis can exacerbate heart disease, and demands a lot of time and energy, noted Lea Matsuoka, MD, an associate professor at Keck Medical Center of USC and one of Owens’ transplant surgeons. Getting a kidney—whether it’s from someone who’s passed away or a live donor who offers the patient one of their kidneys—a transplant tends to increase one’s life span, the doctor added. The younger you are when you receive the organ, the more years it’s likely to add to your life, which is why preference is given to pediatric patients.
One Legacy is the federally designated organization that oversees organ and tissue transplants in L.A. and six surrounding counties. It works with 200 area hospitals that are legally required to notify the nonprofit any time a patient is declared brain dead within their service area. Organs from one donor can save up to eight lives, said de la Cruz, though the average is three or four. Tissue from bones, skin or veins can help over 50 people, she added.
Of the more than 21,000 Californians awaiting an organ transplant, the vast majority—18,000—need a kidney. The numbers of patients awaiting other organs drops sharply from there. As of December 2013, about 3,000 Californians needed a new liver; nearly 300 a heart; another 300 a liver and a pancreas combined; nearly 200 a lung; and more than 80 a pancreas by itself.
“People on the list don’t know where they fall in the line up. A lot is hidden from you,” said Romell. “The day you start dialysis becomes your start date on the waitlist; you don’t get any notices.” In the meantime, Owens was responsible for staying in reasonably good health in order to remain on the list; people who become too sick for surgery, for various reasons, will be passed over for a transplant.
“California has the highest percentage of people waiting in the nation, with 20 percent of the patients on the national list,” said de la Cruz, who is One Legacy’s media relations specialist. If you’re a pediatric patient, that can shorten your wait, obviously, while needing a kidney—especially a larger size one—as was the case with Owens who weighs over 200 pounds, it can lengthen your wait.
“Unfortunately 8 to 10 years is a long wait,” said Matsuoka. “A lot can happen, you’re 10 years older, the surgery is more difficult.”
The kidney transplant coordinator asked Owens if he would accept the organ, in part, because it was considered “higher risk,” said Yasir Qazi, MD, assistant professor of Clinical of Medicine and medical director of the Kidney-Pancreas Transplant Program at Keck Medicine of USC. The surgical team had concerns that the organ would be slow to “open up” and begin performing Owens’ vital functions. Even under the best circumstances, a kidney can be damaged in the delicate process of going from donor to recipient; it’s generally harvested and packed on ice between points A and B.
Owens surgery went well, Qazi and Matsuoka said. After a week, he was discharged from the hospital, and needed only two rounds of dialysis “to jump start the kidney while it was getting used to its new home,” said Matsuoka. Owens stuck close to the house for three or four weeks, only venturing out to go to the doctor; he also wore a mask for a couple of months to guard against infection, and still wears it occasionally in a crowd. He takes between 55 and 60 pills daily for his various conditions, and to protect the new kidney.
The man who had begun to grow impatient with his pre-dawn dialysis regimen, came away from his transplant experience cheerful, family and friends noted.
“That’s the man I married,” Romell said, while daughter, Natasha, declared that her father is “vibrant and alive in a way that I have not seen since I was a teenager,” more than a decade ago. While Owens’ childhood friend Chris B. Smith, with whom he played Little League more than 50 years ago, said: “It’s so amazing to see the hope back in his eyes. Since he got the kidney he’s just a different person… It’s great to see his kids have a glimmer of hope for their dad.”
Owens enthusiasm is palpable: “It’s going extremely fantastic,” he said, emotion welling up in his voice. “It’s unbelievable, hard to put into words, the kidney accepted me and I have a energy… It’s an amazing feeling.” Owens recently gave a testimony at his church about how everyone’s prayers helped him on his perilous journey.
The Road to Poor Health
The Owens’ children, Natasha and Brigman, both in their 30’s, said their father was physically active in their young lives.
“I remember watching him run a few miles [at a time],” Brigman said, while Natasha recalled that he coached her high school basketball squad. Aside from time he devoted to the team, “my father would regularly work with me on drills and extra practice sessions.”
Though he appeared fit on the outside, Owens’ ophthalmologist examined his eyes and saw a storm brewing. He repaired Owens’ detached retina in the early 80s—a decade after his stint as a wide receiver and quarterback for the St. Louis Cardinals.
The doctor looked into his eyes, Owens recalled, and said “‘You have some problems.’ He said my blood pressure and sugar levels were up.”
Not longer after, the former football player was diagnosed with hypertension and diabetes, diseases that put pressure on his kidneys and blood vessels. He began to visit an acupuncturist, which improved his kidney function measurably, he said, but then the heart attack struck.
Owens distinctly remembered that day in the late 90s, which slowly played out one morning as he drove to work:
“I did the stupidest thing,” he said. “I was in pain; my chest was buzzing. I could hear it in my ears, [but] I drove past St. Jude’s Hospital. When I got to work, I got out of the car and couldn’t lift my left leg. It was dragging, and I was slurring my words. I told my boss that I was going to go home and rest.” And then he passed the hospital again on the way back, and again didn’t stop.
At home, he tried to hide the symptoms from Romell, but she sensed something was wrong and insisted they go to the hospital; there they learned that Owens had not only suffered a heart attack, but his blood sugar levels were so high that he had every reason to be in a diabetic coma. To evaluate his heart, doctors needed to inject contrast dye into his vessels to illuminate them, but the dye was toxic to his kidneys, which were likely to fail in the process. Unfortunately, they said, it was a necessary evil to save his life.
The procedure brought Owens’ simmering kidney problems to a roiling boil. He began to battle insomnia, rise every 30 to 45 minutes to urinate, and watch his blood pressure levels become erratic—signs that his kidneys were shutting down and a dialysis machine loomed in his immediate future.
“I blew up. My weight shot to 359 pounds. I didn’t look the same,” Owens remembered. “I couldn’t put my shoes or pants on. I was walking around in sweats; I could barely breathe.”
“His body was holding water,” Brigman, a cinematographer, said. “You could see it everyday in his swollen hands and legs. It was weird watching my dad, a former NFL football player, be out of breath from just walking 100 feet.”
In March 2008, Owens arrived for his first dialysis session. He said he never missed a day in five and a half years. Once he returned home, he would eat breakfast and then settle in for a 2- to 4-hour nap, rising again around 2 or 3 in the afternoon to do laundry or go for a short walk. He couldn’t go far because “my knees would be sore, and my back and feet started to hurt,” he said.
Rates of kidney failure are rising, and the circumstances that lead to it are fairly typical, Owens’ transplant surgeons said.
“High blood pressure and diabetes are common reasons for kidney failure” as they overwork the organs and damage blood vessels, setting the stage for a possible heart attack, stroke and/or kidney failure, said Matsuoka. For a host of reasons, that may include genetics, the environment and less-well understood causes. “African Americans have higher incidents of diabetic hypertension than Caucasians,” said Qazi.
Los Angeles has long wait times for new organs. The death rate in California is lower than in other states, and people live longer lives, said De La Cruz, so there are fewer potential donors. However, there are also higher rates of organ failure, which explains why the wait is longer in the region than in other areas, such as the Midwest or the South.
“Geography [can] define health prognosis,” said Qazi. “In the Midwest, for instance, you have better chances of getting an organ sooner. Being in Los Angeles you’re at a disadvantage because there’s disparity between the regions [of the country], and more people here. You shouldn’t have to be [the late Apple executive] Steve Jobs with his ability to go to Tennessee to get a liver transplant, or have the angels of death circling before you get an organ,” he said.
Resettling in a place where the prospects of getting an organ are better is not an option for most. “It’s difficult for those who have their lives rooted in Los Angeles,” said Matsuoka, especially given that “the most important thing [for a transplant patient] is family support in managing the meds and office visits.” Social support can be harder to come by when you move to a new place, as well.
Another challenge facing Californians is that the state’s residents don’t sign up to be donors at the same rates residents of other states do, said de la Cruz. While 10 million people in California are registered as donors when they die, that doesn’t meet current need, when upwards of 20 percent of people awaiting an organ in the United States live in California. At the Department of Motor Vehicles, where you can elect to have a “donor” dot printed on your license, only 27 to 30 percent choose that option vs. 70 percent of people in some states,” she explained.
Owens’ Next Chapter
Freed up from dialysis, Owens is contemplating his future. “I will say that in the last 10 plus years, my father has not left the state of California, and more specifically Southern California,” Natasha, a TV executive, noted.
“Even to go out of town for a week is nearly impossible on dialysis,” said Matsuoka. “Now he can start traveling again, and get back to what he wanted for his life.”
Owens started with the basics: eating well and taking two-and-a-half-mile walks, so that his new kidney feels well cared for in its new home. “I have to do it,” he told Brigman and Natasha, “so I can watch you both get married and have kids one day; that’s what keeps me going: you guys.”
He also wants to find meaningful employment: “This past 7 ½ to 8 years of not working has been very hard financially.” Though he doesn’t want to go back into the mortgage-banking arena, which he found stressful, he longs to feel useful again.
“He’s a fairly young man, he can get back into the workforce, doing something he enjoys,” said Romell, a film producer. “You have to have a purpose in life, things to do.” The Owens would also like to take a trip together, while his best friend wants to see his buddy get back involved in social outings with the guys.
Owens, who has always been athletic, thinks a lot about the importance of sports in the lives of children.
“When I look at young kids today, I see lot of them are overweight, [in part] because they don’t have physical education… Now they’re starting to understand that that’s important and are starting to bring [those programs] back.” He wants to be a part of the solution.
When he coached Natasha’s basketball squad, she recalled: “Our team went on to win several championships due to his leadership, athletic knowledge and life lessons [you could apply] off the court.”
“I want to coach kids [again],” Owens said. “It doesn’t matter which sport it is. We’ve got to teach them how to work out, to eat the proper foods, to get their homework done. We’ve got to get back to that.”