Clean Elections Executive Director Tom Collins’ badly needed kidney transplant came by way of an unexpected reunion with an old friend from his college days in Tucson.
In the fall of 2017, Collins’ friends and family spread the word on social media that he needed a kidney transplant. Relatives, close friends, casual acquaintances and even people he’d never met got checked to see if they shared his Type O blood, the first step in determining whether they were eligible to donate a kidney.
Several potential donors had gone deep into the process of determining whether they could give Collins one of their kidneys, only to find out they were ineligible. His sister was turned away over a minor medical problem. One college friend was rejected for a growth that doctors discovered. They told her to keep an eye on it and check back in 10 years if she was still interested in donating a kidney.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Collins, and old friend in Portland heard about his plight and had decided to take action.
Collins and Bryan Hance had been friends during their undergrad days at the University of Arizona, running in the same social circles and working together on The Daily Wildcat, the school’s student newspaper. Since college, they hadn’t been especially close. They were Facebook friends and had some close acquaintances in common, but didn’t keep in touch much, outside of the occasional Facebook message.
Nonetheless, once he finished reading the plea for help, Hance picked up the phone and called the Mayo Clinic. Even though they hadn’t talked in years, Hance said he kept thinking about what would happen were he in Collins’ shoes.
“I have to know that, if I was in the same position, everybody I know, all my friends, all my associates would line up to do the same thing,” said Hance, who works as a server engineer at an entertainment and information technology company in Portland.
Collins was diagnosed in 2006 with a condition in which the kidney’s blood vessels scar, making it more difficult for them to filter out waste. His condition was manageable, but worsened over time as his kidney function continually declined. After the 2014 legislative session, Collins ended up in the hospital. It happened again after the 2016 session, requiring a stay of several days. After that hospitalization, Collins moved into his parents’ house in Tempe.
Though he knew he’d have to start dialysis, Collins had hoped to put it off until the end of the 2018 legislative session. But a week before the session began, his nephrologist called with a dire warning: Start dialysis immediately, or run the risk of a heart attack. A few days later he started his four-hour-a-day, three-day-a-week dialysis regimen.
Meanwhile, Hance came to Arizona this summer to undergo the battery of tests and examinations needed to determine if he could donate his kidney. Collins had no idea Hance had come to Arizona. Hance was worried that he would ultimately be an unsuitable donor, and didn’t want to get Collins’ hopes up in case things didn’t work out.
In fact, almost nobody knew what Hance was doing. Even his family was unaware. Hance is an avid runner, and often uses Strava, an app that allows people to track their running and cycling through GPS. He continued his morning runs during his week in Scottsdale, but stopped using the app because he couldn’t post his runs online, lest people find out where he was and what he was doing there.
“I sort of did this secret James Bond mission. I didn’t tell anybody. I told my partner and I told my boss. That was it. And I just disappeared for a week,” he said.
Personnel at Mayo told Hance that he’d almost certainly be approved to donate a kidney. But the official word didn’t come down until a few weeks after he returned home from Arizona. By then, Hance had spoken with a number of people who had donated their organs. He’d already been about 80 percent certain about giving Collins his kidney, but the other donors’ positivity about their experiences sealed the deal.
He told his work, and flew to Ohio to break the news to his parents, who were supportive.
One person who was still unaware was Collins. For legal and medical reasons, Mayo keeps transplant patients and prospective donors at arm’s length, so Collins was oblivious to Hance’s activities. He had no idea that a donor had been found at all, much less that it was an old friend.
His first indication that he had a donor came in September, when a Mayo scientist called Collins about a study on Native Americans’ reactions to drugs that keep transplant patients from rejecting new organs. Mayo needed samples from patients of other ethnicities, and wanted to know if Collins was willing to participate.
Collins said he was willing, but was puzzled by the scientist’s insistence that they needed to get the sample two weeks before his own kidney transplant. He’d only been on the transplant list for about 18 months, and the average wait is three years.
“OK, in two years we’ll do that. You want me to come by next week? It seems like kind of putting the cart before the horse here,” Collins said.
The next day, Mayo called and asked if he was aware that he had a transplant scheduled for Nov. 14.
Collins still had no idea of his donor’s identity, and didn’t think to ask. It wasn’t until a week and a half before the surgery that Hance messaged Collins on Facebook to inquire about his health. They spent a day conversing before Hance dropped the news.
“Finally, after like a day of that, he was like, ‘Dude, I’m the donor,’” Collins said. “It totally blew my mind.”
Before the surgery, Collins and Hance met in person for the first time in more than a decade. Afterward, they posed for what Hance called a “victory photo.”
Collins has several doctor appointments each week. He’s on anti-rejection medication to ensure that his body accepts his new kidney. He sleeps often, and gets fatigued easily.
But he’s turned a corner in a way that just months ago seemed unthinkable. His lab results have improved dramatically, and are better than they’ve been in years. For the first time in a decade, Collins no longer takes medication to control his high blood pressure, a byproduct of his kidney disease. He’s looking forward to moving out of his parents’ house for the first time in more than two years. And he expects to be back at work soon.
A kidney transplant can last for five to 20 years, so Collins figures he’ll be in good shape for a while.
“It’s been already life-changing,” he said.
According to the National Kidney Foundation, there are more than 100,000 people nationwide waiting for new kidneys. Each month, 3,000 people join that that list, and on average, 13 people die each day while waiting for a kidney. In 2014, 4,761 people died waiting for a kidney transplant, and another 3,668 got too sick to get a transplant.
Collins said he’s no more deserving of a new kidney than anyone else. Were transplants based on merit, surely there are people more deserving of him, he said. But Collins said he feels like the transplant was somehow ordained to happen. Questioning things won’t do anyone any good, he said.
“The question is, what do I do now and can I continue to contribute whatever it is that I have to contribute to the world? And this will make that easier. What that is, I don’t know. I might just be hanging around, ranting about Clean Elections for another 15 years,” Collins said.
For Hance, the experience has nothing but positive as well. He said people have asked him if it feels strange to know that a piece of his body is out there, now a part of someone else. His answer is an emphatic no.
“My kidney is like the Mars Rover of kidneys. My kidney is out there having adventures and doing cool stuff. I think it’s absolutely amazing. My kidney is helping a friend. My friend is awesome. He’s going to go do amazing things. I am not weirded out in the least. It makes me super proud,” Hance said.
And though they hadn’t kept in contact much since college, Hance said he expects that he and Collins will keep in touch from here on out.
“I am glad to have reunited with him in such a strange way,” he said.