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Man donates kidney to fellow Vietnam veteran

By JACK MORAN | The Register-Guard, Eugene, Ore. | Published: October 5, 2018

EUGENE, Ore. (Tribune News Service) — Doug Coffman of Eugene says he's no hero.

The way he sees it, he was just helping an old friend when he became one of thousands of people who have made the decision to become a living organ donor.

"There are lots of others, and they're all around us," Coffman, 70, said this week during an interview at his home, where he's steadily recovering from a Sept. 18 transplant procedure in which he gave a kidney to a fellow Vietnam War veteran.

Coffman and recipient James McGee, 69, hadn't crossed paths in 47 years before the pair met up in July at a mini-reunion for members of their Vietnam War-era Air Force training class.

McGee at the time was undergoing dialysis three times a week while waiting for a kidney donation. He said his wife, a nephew and four friends each had previously agreed to be a living donor for him, but none proved a match.

McGee figured his best chance at a new kidney would be from a deceased donor.

"I had set for myself an artificial time limit," McGee said in a Thursday telephone interview. "If I didn't get one by the time I turned 72, I was going to say, 'Take me off the list and give it to somebody else.'"

Then came July's reunion in Monterey, Calif. Coffman said that although he and McGee — who served as U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Madagascar and the Comoros between 2002 and 2009 — hadn't spoken in decades, he did not hesitate to offer one of his kidneys to his former Defense Language Institute classmate upon hearing his story.

"I immediately felt this sense of concern," Coffman recalled. "I asked him what was the main criteria (for a transplant to work) and he said, 'Blood type.' I asked him what was his and he said it was O-positive. I looked at him and said, 'That's my blood type.'"

It's about education

According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, a nonprofit organization that contracts with the federal government to manage the nation's transplant system, just over 95,000 people in the U.S. were awaiting kidney transplants as of Oct. 1.

A total of 19,849 kidney transplants were performed across the nation last year. Fewer than one-third of those — 5,811 — involved living donors, according to UNOS data.

Most people live normal, healthy lives with one kidney. Several thousand people, however, die each year while waiting for a transplant, according to the National Kidney Foundation.

Dr. Matt Cooper, the director for kidney and pancreas transplantations at the MedStar Georgetown University Transplant Institute in Washington, D.C. — the medical center where the procedure involving Coffman and McGee was performed — said he believes the general public doesn't think or know much about potentially becoming a living organ donor.

"It's all about education, and unfortunately most people don't think about kidney disease unless they or a family member are affected by it," Cooper said. "Many people do not recognize there's someone they can help right now."

That describes Coffman prior to his July encounter with McGee.

"My driver's license has always said I'm an organ donor, and I've been a blood donor for years, but it never occurred to me to be a living donor," he said. "But when I heard Jim's story I just thought to myself, 'I can help.'"

A healthy donor

Once Coffman committed to donating a kidney, he quickly learned that matching blood types with McGee represented just a first step in the process. A number of additional tests followed, and the operation wouldn't have happened had any of those exams indicated incompatibility.

But no issues were found. "Everything matched," McGee said.

Meanwhile, Coffman learned he was even healthier than he had figured. "The doctor told me I had the kidneys of a 35-year-old," he said, adding that physicians also found that the organs are slightly larger than normal.

Age-wise, Coffman doesn't fit the profile of a typical living donor. According to the National Kidney Association, just a small fraction of people who donate kidneys while they're still alive are older than 65.

Cooper said because a person's kidney function decreases over time, it's not ideal for a 70-year-old donor to give up an organ to someone far younger than them. But for a like-aged person, "it's a really good opportunity to have."

And the fact is, Cooper added, Coffman "is one of the healthiest" 70-year-old patients he's ever encountered.

Coffman — who flew combat support missions over the war zone while serving as an Air Force linguist — has resided in Eugene since 1986. He is an author who has conducted extensive research on the American bison.

He acknowledges practicing a healthy lifestyle but also says "a good ration of plain, old good luck" has helped him remain active as he nears his 71st birthday.

The Sept. 18 operation appears to have been a success. One of Coffman's kidneys was removed laparoscopically through an abdomen incision, and then transplanted into McGee.

Coffman was discharged from the medical center 36 hours after the surgery. He's still moving slowly but doctors expect him to fully recover.

He won't sugarcoat the experience.

"The easy part is deciding to donate," he said. "The tough part is the surgery. It's major surgery. But there was so much consultation (by medical professionals) beforehand. When I was on that gurney I knew what the risks were."

McGee, meanwhile, said his recovery is going "amazingly well." The Florida resident will, however, live in an apartment on the medical center grounds for another 1½ months while continuing to receive postoperative care.

McGee said that once he's recovered, he intends to become a public advocate for living organ donations.

"My absolute mission in life is to get the message out," he said. "We are talking about a safe, life-saving procedure that people need to be educated on, to overcome that fear of the unknown."

And if Coffman won't say it, McGee will.

"What (Coffman) did is a truly heroic act, as far as I'm concerned."

©2018 The Register-Guard (Eugene, Ore.)
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