Troy Milford loves being a farmer.
Milford likes the hard work that comes with farm life. Waking early, finishing late, spending long hours on his tractor in the hot Hall County sun.
But his life hasn’t always been sunny. He has polycystic kidney disease. “It’s tough to talk about it,” he said.
Eight years ago, Milford was a pastor, working at a church in Gainesville, when he was told that his disease, which causes cysts to form on the kidneys, had worsened. He needed to start dialysis, and eventually he would need a new kidney.
Milford, who calls himself a private man, did not announce his health need to his congregation, and was wary of telling people he was looking for a kidney donor.
One person who found out that Milford needed help was Robert Poole, a member of Milford’s congregation and a friend of the family. “Everything ran through my mind,” Poole said. “I figured people closer to him would help. But I prayed about it, and I really thought it was the right thing to do.”
This year, the two men became part of the second-largest paired kidney donation in history. Fifty-six donors and recipients from around the nation were matched for living organ donation.
Emory University officials in Atlanta said this “Chain 221” was conducted by the National Kidney Registry and involved 56 people and 28 transplants in 19 transplant centers across the United States, including Emory University Hospital.
Living donor transplants started in 1954. The first such transplant in Georgia was conducted by Emory doctors in 1966 at Grady Memorial Hospital in downtown Atlanta.
Early on, Poole’s hopes to be a kidney donor appeared to suffer a setback. When he was tested, he was found not to be a match for Milford.
According to Dr. Nicole Turgeon, director of Emory’s living donor program, there are multiple reasons why someone may not be a good candidate to donate an organ to a particular individual.
“When someone wants to donate an organ, we are looking at the donor and recipient’s blood type and their cross-matches, their tissue. If they differ, it is very possible that the organ could be rejected.”
Disappointment turns to happiness
Poole was devastated that he couldn’t give his kidney to his friend. But Turgeon had an idea that would allow Poole to donate his kidney to someone who needed it, and get Milford the kidney match he needed.
She signed them up for Chain 221, the kidney donation exchange. And it turned out that although Poole wasn’t a match for Milford, he was a match for someone in Texas. Meanwhile, a donor in New Jersey was a match for Milford.
Essentially, such an arrangement is one big gift exchange where everybody goes home happy.
On April 30, both Poole and Milford underwent surgery at Emory University Hospital, with Turgeon doing Milford’s surgery, and another Emory physician doing Poole’s. Poole woke up with one kidney, and Milford with three. (Removing his other two kidneys could cause complications.)
Their rooms were near each other after surgery.
“I was asking, ‘How the heck are you up and walking around?’ ” Poole recalled, laughing. “I never doubted [the wisdom of] having the surgery until after the surgery, until the pain.”
“I just had stronger pain meds than you,” Milford replied with a smile.
Milford and Poole hope that their story will raise awareness for living organ donation.
“You could be a match — more people should be tested if they feel moved to,” Poole said.
After their surgery, Poole and Milford remained hospitalized for several days.
In June, both were medically released and were given the go-ahead to return to normal activity. When Milford was asked what was the first thing he would do with his newfound freedom, he said he had only one thing on his mind:
“I’m going to go home and bale some hay.”
Sofia Kouninis, a Georgia Health News intern, is an Emory University student.