Run over by a drunken driver at age 12, C. Allen Shierling Jr. survived and has lived a life dedicated to helping others. Now, the 46-year-old Columbus resident is a former teacher on disability and needs help from others.
He is on the kidney transplant list. Liberty Baptist Church will host the Monopoly tournament he is organizing for Jan. 30 to raise money for the portion of his medical expenses Medicare won't cover -- and to raise awareness that you don't have to be dead to donate one of your two kidneys.
According to the Living Kidney Donors Network, a transplant from a living donor increases the recipient's life expectancy to 18 years, compared to 13 years from a deceased donor.
Shierling hopes this event will inspire at least one person to donate to him or anyone else requiring the life-saving operation.
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"This is my shot," he said. "This is my life. This is what I've got. This is what I've got to work with, and this is what I've got to do with it. I can just sit back and let it go by, or I can live it."
Shierling was a seventh-grader at Daniel Junior High School in March 1982, when he walked across U.S. Route 1 in Key West, Fla., to get tickets for a train tour while on spring break with his family.
He didn't make it. A speeding Lincoln Continental zoomed around the corner and flipped him onto the hood. The police report determined, Shierling said, "from where the car stopped, I flew another 23½ feet."
Shierling landed sitting upright on the street. He didn't feel any pain until the paramedics moved his left leg and treated him for a broken femur. He missed more than a month of school, but a more serious injury in his body wasn't discovered until 25 years later, when it was too late.
Meanwhile, at 16, Shierling was diagnosed with gout, a complex form of arthritis, with sudden and severe attacks of pain in the joints. His doctors didn't realize it at the time, Shierling learned later, but his left kidney was damaged in the crash four years earlier and prevented him from completely filtering uric acid, a waste product, out of his blood. Uric acid building up in the joints causes gout. And the anti-inflammatory pills he took for more than 20 years to combat the gout damaged his right kidney.
But he wasn't aware of any of these pending medical problems when he graduated from Jordan High School in 1987. He pursued a career in the ministry, then realized his passion was in education.
Shierling worked as a parent coordinator, bookkeeper and substitute teacher at Eddy Middle School from 1994-98. After earning his bachelor's degree in education from Troy University, he taught seventh-grade language arts at Baker Middle School from 1998-2001.
He moved to Florida to be closer to some friends and continued teaching in a middle school there until 2004, when he returned to Columbus to help his mother after his father, Charles Sr., now a double amputee, had his first amputation. He worked at Double Churches Middle School as the in-school suspension coordinator before moving back to Florida at the end of 2005, when he started teaching for the state's Department of Juvenile Justice at several locations.
Diagnosis and discovery
In 2007, fatigue, trouble sleeping and bloated legs and ankles prompted Shierling to spend the weekends with his feet propped up. So he convinced himself to see a doctor.
His blood test indicated stage 4 chronic kidney disease, meaning his kidney function was at 15-29 percent.
An X-ray was scheduled to confirm the diagnosis. His gout flared up that day, so the pain he experienced while the technician rolled him into position on the examination table was exacerbated by the frustration of not finding his left kidney. A sonogram and CAT scan also failed to locate it.
No wonder. He didn't have it anymore, doctors finally told him.
"The fact that I developed gouty arthritis at 16 leads them to believe I lost the kidney from the accident when I was 12," he said.
His left kidney was so damaged, it didn't function at all and eventually atrophied and was absorbed into the body.
Shierling's initial reaction: "OK, we'll just deal with this, because you're used to dealing with whatever comes up as a teacher."
Then he searched the Internet for more information, "and that's when it started scaring me," he said. "You see, there's really no cure for it. Even a transplant isn't a cure; it's a treatment."
During that year, before his diagnosis, Shierling had absorbed a series of devastating news about his family:
His mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died six weeks later; his great-aunt died less than two weeks after his mother's funeral; his grandmother died two months later.
"It was a crazy 2007," he said.
Asked how he dealt with the deluge of physical and emotional pain, he said, "You're so caught up in the moment, you're just in survival mode. Just get through this, then figure it out."
Shierling's doctor told him he couldn't be listed for a transplant until he was at stage 5, which means kidney function is less than 15 percent. His was at 25 percent. The doctor also told him his life expectancy was five to eight years without a transplant. That was nine years ago.
"I decided I've got to fight this," he said. "I'm not going to accept this."
Instead of lamenting his lot, Shierling concerned himself with what he could control. He went on a vegan diet and lost more than 100 pounds, from 336 to 205.
On Easter in 2009, a friend looked at him and said, "You're such an inspiration to me."
Shierling, however, was holding a cigarette at the time and thought, "Wow. I've been an inspiration to somebody, but here I am still doing this to myself."
Right there, he cold-turkey quit his pack-a-day smoking habit.
"If you're not ready to lose weight, or you're not ready to quit smoking, you're not going to until your mind is ready, no matter what," he said. "Peer pressure's not going to do it. Family's not going to do it. Until you're ready personally, you're not going to do it."
Shierling used the reports from his periodic blood tests as a map toward a healthier body.
"I would look at each number and look that up on the computer," he said. "If I could find anything with that number that had to do with food, I would make that adjustment in my diet. It was eat more of this or less of that. As soon as I got one number under control, I'd pick another number and do the same thing."
Shierling's worsening gouty arthritis forced him to use a can and prevented him from exercising, so he had to focus on his diet to lose weight. He viewed calories as money and gave himself a budget.
"I would analyze whether it was worth spending those calories on this type of food or that type of food," he said.
The lifestyle change not only kept him alive, but it enabled him to work as an educator again. This time, he taught at the Monarch School, a private school for children with autism in Lakeland, Fla. By 2014, however, the gouty arthritis and kidney disease proved too much, and he couldn't teach anymore.
"It took everything I had just to get to work and back," he said. "I finally told them they needed to find somebody to replace me."
Not being healthy enough to teach has been tough to accept.
"I miss the kids more than anything else," he said. "The last several years working with kids with autism, that's my niche, and that's what I miss the most. I had middle school boys, a classroom of 12 or 13, higher functioning, but all on the spectrum of autism. I loved every minute of it. I miss that tremendously."
Here's why: "You can change their life completely with just one small thing," he said.
For example, one of his students couldn't tolerate seeing jewelry. The boy would cringe and hide. The parents couldn't wear even their wedding rings in front of him. But through one school year of Shierling slowly exposing the boy to jewelry and gaining his trust, the parents finally could wear their wedding rings again and the boy could talk to Shierling about possibly buying an engagement ring for his beloved one day.
"By the end of the year," Shierling said, "he would actually shake my hand with a ring on it."
All of which explains Shierling's dream of opening his own school for children with autism.
Return to Columbus
Shierling moved back to Columbus in December 2014 to take care of his ailing father, who also has congestive heart failure and diabetes. He intended to work in the Muscogee County School District again, but he missed his January 2015 interview because he was hospitalized for two weeks when his remaining kidney shut down and his gouty arthritis flared up.
Nearly 50 pounds of fluid was removed from his body, and he was treated with steroids to reduce the swelling. He also received eight units of blood and started dialysis, which he undergoes three times per week now.
Shierling's nephrologist confirmed his kidney function had fallen to stage 5 and referred him to the Emory Transplant Center. After three appointments last year, he was placed on the transplant list earlier this month -- a year to the date he started dialysis.
Now, he is one of more than 100,000 Americans awaiting a kidney transplant, according to the National Kidney Foundation. The median wait time is 3.6 years. In 2014, out of the 17,107 kidney transplants, 11,570 came from deceased donors and 5,537 came from living donors. On average, according to the foundation, more than 3,000 new patients are added to the waiting list each month, including one every 14 minutes, and 13 people on the list die each day. The total from the 2014 list was 4,761 deaths, and another 3,668 patients became too sick to receive a transplant even if a match were available.
Shierling knows the daunting statistics. He understands the overwhelming odds. But he insists on keeping a positive outlook, despite nobody in his immediate family qualifying as a potential donor because of their own health issues. So he must rely on a sacrifice from a friend or a stranger.
"I live my life just assuming everything is going to work the way it's supposed to," he said. But he admitted, "Every so often, it's a little overwhelming to think, 'OK, you really have only five to eight years on dialysis, and you've already used up one of them. That kind of scares me a little bit. But, at the same time, life's too short to be stressing over stuff like that."
Then he added with a laugh, "The only issue I've had during this time is some anger at the idiot who hit me when I was 12."
He couldn't recall the accident's legal result, but he said the driver was a sailor, the Navy dismissed him, his wife left him, and he committed suicide. Shierling gets no satisfaction from that karma, although he is pleased to report a walkover bridge was built above U.S. Route 1 at the point he tried to cross.
Shierling's brother-in-law, the Rev. David Lix, offered Liberty Baptist Church, which he pastors, as the venue for the fundraiser. Lix's wife, Lorrie, teaches at Midland Middle School, and they live upstairs from Shierling and his father in the Columbus home they share.
"He's always been a very optimistic person," said Lix, who has known Shierling for about 30 years. "He's always been a person who thinks outside the box."
As a minister, Lix has helped many folks through illness, but he rarely sees someone who has taken as much responsibility for their own health as Shierling.
"Some people would lay back and let someone take care of them or wait for the Lord to call you home," said Lix, who also runs a food and clothing bank for Mission Columbus, part of the Columbus Baptist Association. "But he wants to do what he can to re-enter the workforce and teach again. He's always been for the underdog, and now he's the underdog, but he's not stopping."
So on behalf of a man who has given to others, Lix urges the public to give to him.
"He pretty much knows it will take an act of God for him to get what he needs," Lix said. "But there's a lot of good people in this world. Even if you don't want to play Monopoly, anyone can come by and make a donation to reward somebody who's actually trying to help himself."
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow him on Twitter @MarkRiceLE.
IF YOU GO
What: Monopoly tournament to benefit kidney former Muscogee County teacher Allen Shierling, who is on the kidney transplant list.
When: Saturday, Jan. 30, 9 a.m. registration, 10 a.m. start time, 2 p.m. presentation of prize money and trophies for first ($100), second ($50) and third ($25) places.
Where: Liberty Baptist Church, 934 Valley Forge Road, Columbus.
Note: The tournament will allow a maximum of 72 participants; event also will include a scavenger hunt with prizes, a 50/50 raffle and a snack bar.
Financial donations: According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, the first-year billed charges for a kidney transplant average more than $262,000. To help with Shierling’s uninsured expenses, expected to be 20 percent of the cost, tax-deductible donations may be made to his account, part of the Southeast Kidney Transplant Fund, at http://helpHOPElive.org/campaign/9922 or mail checks, payable to HelpHopeLive, to 2 Radnor Corporate Center, 100 Matsonford Road, Suite 100, Radnor, PA, 19087. Write on the check’s memo line “In honor of Allen Shierling.”
Kidney donations: To learn how to donate one of your kidneys while you are alive, visit www.transplant.emory.edu or call the Living Donor Program at Emory Healthcare, 1-855-366-7989. If you want your kidney to go to Shierling, refer to his full name, Charles Allen Shierling Jr. and his date of birth, July 1, 1969.