The gift was offered to save a life. It had to be rejected, but it might have saved another life.
Russell Walker, 60, and Ray Capo, 45, became friends as they taught together for 13 years at East Columbus Magnet Academy. Last fall, Walker learned he finally was eligible to be on the transplant list for a kidney. Capo, who was learning about angels in his church’s study group, volunteered to give that gift.
And so began a journey of discovery: joy for being deemed a perfect match; heartbreak for the gift being canceled; gratitude for Capo’s cancer being found early enough; and, ultimately, proof that friendship, family and faith can help us prevail.
Dialysis or die
Capo has two sons, ages 15 and 12, and teaches special education at East Columbus. Walker, who now teaches English language arts at Baker Middle School, has a wife and three adult sons.
About three years ago, while being treated for Type II diabetes and high blood pressure, Walker learned that his kidneys were operating at 30 percent, and he was headed toward kidney failure.
His kidney function plunged to 11 percent by April 2015. His doctor declared he needed dialysis. Walker declined. Then the doctor gave him a stark choice: Dialysis or die.
“I had to process what that all meant,” Walker said, especially because he and his wife are active travelers. When he realized he could receive dialysis at centers across the country, stopping every day and a half for treatment, he gladly complied with his doctor’s order.
Now, he sits for a four-hour dialysis session three times per week. He appreciates the Muscogee County School District allowing him to miss 10 minutes of instructional time to leave school early for his appointments.
During his morning commute one day in the fall of 2015, Capo sang to himself a hymn he wrote based on the gospel song “He Touched Me” by Elvis Presley:
Who touched me?
Someone has touched me.
Christ, do you not see this crowd?
Why ask, “Who touched me?” — are not they all?
Who touched me? Let’s find her now.
Shackled by a heavy burden,
‘Neath a load of gilded shame.
Then the arm of Jesus reached me
And now I am no longer the same.
Since I found this blessed healer,
Since he strolled right through my town,
I will press through all to touch him.
I’ll touch, if just the hem of his shroud.
Capo also recited prayers of thanksgiving for arriving safely at school after an 18-wheeler nearly jackknifed in front of him on Interstate 185.
As he signed in as usual in the copier room, Capo overheard Walker telling another friend that he finally had been approved to be on the transplant list, meaning he could receive a kidney from a living or deceased donor if a match could be found and his turn came up.
Without forethought, Capo didn’t hesitate. For some reason, he felt compelled. He said he wants to be the donor.
Walker was wowed.
“I didn’t expect to hear that,” Walker said. “Other people have said, ‘Well, you know, if I could help, I will,’ but he says, ‘I want to be the donor.’ And that was the difference. That’s been his mantra ever since.
“… I didn’t ask him — he volunteered — which just took it over the top for me, because people don’t know and understand, I think, the severity of an organ transplant, and it wasn’t until I got this condition that I understood. It’s a life-changing, a life-altering kind of situation, and for him to give up his time and his resources to help me is just tremendous.”
Walker said he would get back to Capo about his offer, but Capo had to remind him.
“We’ve gone down some bumpy roads together work-wise,” Walker explained, “and we were just there to support each other, and I think that had a whole lot to do with his benevolence toward me and my sometimes challenged acceptance that someone would reach out that far and say, ‘Let me help’ without being asked to help. He’s just a tremendous guy. … He knows that I have this man-love for him.”
At the time, Capo’s spur-of-the-moment decision surprised him as well. He never regretted it, but he struggled to understand it. A year later, he is closer to an answer.
“I think God was looking out for me and for our friendship and for the overall process of donating organs,” Capo said. “Maybe our story can spark interest in more organ donations.”
Three trips to the Emory Transplant Center in Atlanta during the next year, and each test further confirmed that Capo indeed could be Walker’s donor.
“He was perfect,” Walker said. “He was perfect for the match.”
Area of concern
Then in June, a CAT scan revealed “an area of concern” in Capo’s right kidney.
“They did not give me any more information,” he said.
But he wasn’t alarmed.
“My impression was I am obviously a match, a perfect match, and they want to take this a step further for more tests,” he said.
A week after his MRI in September, Capo’s cellphone lit up during his fifth-period class. It was a call from Emory. He walked into the hallway and kept an eye on his students while he spoke to his case worker.
“Her words were that there is an area of concern that was revealed,” he said. “I can download the results through the patient portal and share with my doctor, but they strongly advise me to speak to my doctor.”
Capo still wasn’t told any specifics, but he still was stunned. As soon as he returned home, he opened his patient portal and spoke to one of his brothers, a doctor. His brother advised, “It’s probably nothing, but speak to your doctor about it.”
The earliest appointment available was the following week. “It was a week of high stress,” Capo said.
When he met with his doctor, Capo was told his right kidney has a “very small” mass, 1.7 centimeters, more than likely a cyst, but additional tests are needed to be certain. Either way, this probably would mean he couldn’t donate a kidney.
“I was shocked and very disappointed, very disappointed,” Capo said. “I had worked myself up over the course of a year with tests and more tests, which obviously meant I was the perfect match for Russell, and then receiving this news was really hard for me, and I knew it would be hard for him, and I really hated to present him with that news. For a while, I could not get myself to call him and tell him.”
Grateful for grace
A couple of weeks later, while waiting for a follow-up test result, Capo finally called Walker to share the bad news — and Capo is grateful for the grace Walker gave him.
“It was overwhelming,” Capo said. “I knew it was heartfelt on his part. That’s what friends are. He was gracious to receive the potential donation, and he was gracious and very comforting as a friend, knowing what I was dealing with at the time. … He was concerned more for my health, and I was apologetic, even though I did not need to be apologetic.”
The conversation was typical of their relationship, Walker said.
“It’s just weird that you can have the separate lives but still be that closely connected,” Walker said. “… I was thankful. Because he had done what he had done, they were able to find that there was something there before it grew into something major. So I was more happy about that than I was sad about the idea that he could not be a donor for me. Even though I lost that piece, that opportunity, there still is an opportunity for him to be healthy. Had he not done what he set out to do, we may not have ever found that.”
Walker added, “It was definitely God’s intervention.”
A urologist ordered more tests, then a surgeon did a biopsy in October. Within a week, Capo learned the tumor was malignant.
“I was taken aback,” Capo said. “Nothing can prepare you for that news.”
The good news: His type of cancer, detected at such an early stage, has a 95-percent cure rate.
The week after Thanksgiving, an ablation was performed on Capo’s right kidney. The procedure involves burning off the cancer cells.
“They’re hoping they got everything,” Capo said.
He doesn’t need any cancer treatment. He has full kidney function. Now, he waits another three months for another CAT scan.
His tumor was so small and so slow-growing, Capo didn’t have any symptoms. No pain. No blood in his urine. No abnormality in blood tests. He went from pursuing an extremely generous act to now needing help himself.
“I was not prepared for that at all, the shift from caring for someone else suddenly being put on myself and having to take care of an urgent medical situation,” Capo said.
He allayed his dismay with this notion: “I was very thankful at the same time that this was caught so early, before it spread.”
The euphoria of being deemed a perfect match turned into to the distress of dealing with his own health crisis.
“It’s been a roller coaster — I will say that — the emotions and everything else,” Capo said with a laugh.
Obedience to God
The Rev. Grace Burton-Edwards, rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Columbus, saw organ donation become “a profoundly spiritual journey” while serving as a hospital chaplain. So when Capo told her he felt led to donate one of his kidneys to a friend, she said, “It was clear this decision came from his own life of prayer and obedience to God.”
In an essay Burton-Edwards encouraged him to write, Capo described breaking the news to his sons “as if I were stepping into a confessional booth. Both of my boys had, for years, tried to convince me to quit smoking, to no avail, and through no fault of their own, of course. Here I was, telling those who love me most, of how my indiscretion could have led to this.
“… Surprisingly, there was no, ‘I told you so’ from either of them. There were those questions of concern, ‘Will you live?’, ‘Will you be OK?’”
That day, Capo quit smoking.
“Still think about it,” he wrote. “May pick it up again, though hopefully not. I’m learning to love myself, not judge myself, my smoking self.”
After crying himself to sleep, he told his oldest son, then his youngest, “It’s not that bad. Yes, I have cancer. No one wants to hear this. Yes, I have to be watched and monitored closely, for the next five years especially. … It could be worse. It could have gone unnoticed. With my seemingly high tolerance for pain, it could have been too late.”
Capo said his urologist told him, “You were trying to be an angel for someone else, and it looks like someone was looking out for you.”
Although his Wednesday evening class at St. Thomas was studying about angels when he made that angelic commitment, Capo emphasized, “I wasn’t trying to be an angel per se; I just felt the need there and our close friendship at the same time. That’s what motivated me.”
Walker insists otherwise.
“I know there are angels that walk amongst us daily unrecognized,” he said, “and Ray is one of them.”
Walker also objects to anyone calling Capo’s offer unsuccessful.
“I was blessed with him offering, and he has been blessed in giving his offering and finding out that he in turn needed to go see a doctor,” Walker said. “So out of his kindness, he’s been helped.”
Capo added, “If more people see or read the story, they may be inspired to donate themselves. Benefits and good things can come from this. I’ve learned to realize that it will all work out.”
Capo wrote in his essay about a “truly bigoted and racist friend who couldn’t understand why I would give away a kidney.”
Walker is black; Capo is Latino. Their racial difference wasn’t an obstacle in the potential kidney donation — just as it isn’t an obstacle in their friendship.
“That may be a story line for others to learn from,” Capo said.
Possibly receiving a kidney from someone of a different race wasn’t an issue, Walker said. “My wife is British,” he said. “My children are biracial. … I basically have grown up not letting color be one of those things that separated me from anywhere or anybody else.”
A checkup this week gave Capo more hope that his cancer is gone. Burton-Edwards, however, noted this journey isn’t finished.
“While everyone at St. Thomas is grateful for the positive outcome for Ray, I continue to pray for Russell and for all in need of organ transplants and other gifts of life,” she said. “Maybe this story will inspire compassion and generosity in others.”
Walker still needs a kidney. His wife is being tested to determine whether she is a match, Walker said, but she is trying to get her high blood pressure regulated before becoming a potential donor.
So he waits for another angel.
“What I’m told,” Walker said, “a living donor would be a much better match for me. … They say the waiting list typically is 4-7 years, and I’ve been on it about two. If I got a kidney in less than four years, I would be absolutely elated. I’m tested monthly to check levels and make sure I’m doing the kind of things health-wise I’m supposed to do.”
Even if he emerges from his health scare completely free of cancer, Capo said, he isn’t allowed to donate one of his kidneys anymore, but he can help folks in need of other organs by becoming a deceased donor.
Lo and behold, Capo’s driver’s license is due for renewal in March, so he plans to have the organ donor designation added to his new license.
“I had never been certain about it and always told myself I would think about it later,” he said, “but this process has opened me up to the organ donation possibility more so.”
In 1998, when one of Capo’s brothers killed, his family donated his organs. That comforted Capo, giving some purpose to the senseless tragedy, but it didn’t immediately prompt him to become an organ donor.
“I always felt that I would be able to consider this at a later time,” he said. “I would say that the living donor process, along with the news I subsequently received, helped me to realize that registering as a donor is important for me to do now.”
All of which makes this Christmas extra special for Capo.
“It’s given me a new meaning to the Christmas season,” he said, “realizing that we can all give something to make a difference for those around us.”
In his essay, Capo expressed his gratitude for the support he received.
“I have been showered by the blessings of God, family and friends, which has made it all the better,” he wrote. “Yes, this made me consider the effects that this outpouring of kindness would have on the misfortunes and ills of the wider world around each of us.
“I am now certain that, as we all truly ‘go in peace to love and serve the Lord,’ the chaos will dim, the light will dawn, and love will certainly both baptize and heal the world through our own acts of kindness to all we encounter, as unto Christ.
“Thanks be to God!”
How to become an organ donor
To learn how to become a living organ donor, call the Emory Transplant Center in Atlanta at 855-366-7989 and ask for the living donor team. To designate your donation for a specific person, you must mention that person’s birth date. Russell Walker’s birth date is Feb. 21, 1956.
The American Transplant Foundation says on its website the recipient’s Medicare or private health insurance usually pays for the donor’s evaluation, donation surgery and post-operative care, but it is illegal for donors to be paid for their organs.
According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 30,970 organ transplants were performed in 2015, and 119,561 Americans were on an organ transplant list as of Dec. 22, including 99,070 for a kidney, but 22 Americans die per day while waiting. One donor can save as many as eight lives with their organs. To become an organ donor, visit www.organdonor.gov.
The department also advises donors to designate their decision on their driver's license, tell their family and friends about their decision, tell their doctor about their decision and include their decision in legal documents, such as advance directives, wills and living wills.