2017-02-02 / Regional News

A giver in need

Looking for a kidney, Sterling firefighter promotes organ donation awareness
By Amanda Collins Bernier

David Johnson at the Sterling Fire Department. 
Amanda Collins Bernier photo David Johnson at the Sterling Fire Department. Amanda Collins Bernier photo STERLING – As a dad of three girls, a self-employed contractor, and a man who’s spent decades on the Sterling Fire Department, it’s safe to say that David Johnson has a good heart.

It’s his kidneys that are the problem.

In 1987 Johnson was involved in a crane accident at work that resulted in constant headaches and the need for pain medications to control them. That medication, he believes, had an irreversible effect on his kidney function. By 1989 he was seeing a nephrologist for chronic kidney disease.

Medications for high blood pressure have kept many of the symptoms at bay, but still, the disease has progressed over the years, slowly creeping from Stage 2 to Stage 3 as the decades passed. At Stage 3, about half of kidney function has been lost.

Last June, his disease was advanced to Stage 4.

“Stage 5 is kidney failure,” said Johnson, “and there’s no time-frame to when it gets there.”

At that point he will need dialysis or a kidney transplant.

Transplantation is far superior to long-term dialysis on all fronts. Transplant patients generally live twice as long as those who stay on dialysis and transplant patients are not restricted by the challenging routine of dialysis therapy, according to the National Kidney Registry.

“Best case scenario is a transplant, and the best thing is a live donor,” he said.

Johnson’s name has been added to the National Kidney Registry, but knowing there can be up to a five-year wait to find a match, he and his family have decided to take a proactive approach. Wanting to have “everything all lined up,” Johnson began actively searching for a kidney donor.

“It’s tough because some people don’t understand. I don’t look sick; I still come to work everyday,” said Johnson. He admits that he’s been tired, but he has no medical restrictions. “It’s a kidney, it’s a difficult thing to ask someone.”

But Johnson, 50, has been humbled by the response. A Facebook page his children set up, “Help DJ Find a Kidney,” encouraging people to “share their spare,” reached 7,000 people in one day. The program at Mass General Hospital that will be coordinating his transplant has received close to 90 applications – enough that they’ve found at least two potential matches already and are proceeding with the next round of tests.

“The idea now is to see if we can help someone else,” said Johnson. “People do have an interest in being a donor, but some just don’t know they have the interest. We want to educate people out there about the need, and the process.”

Holden Fire Chief Jack Chandler, a longtime friend of Johnson’s, is helping to coordinate an information session later this month about organ donation.

Currently, more than 121,000 people in the U.S. are awaiting a lifesaving organ transplant, and of them, more than 100,000 are waiting for kidney transplants, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Over 3,000 new patients are added to the kidney waiting list each month.

“There’s plenty of others in need. If you’re willing and healthy enough to be an anonymous donor, there’s a need everywhere,” said Chandler.

The information night is slated for 7 p.m. on Feb. 22 at the Sterling Senior Center. A representative from New England Donor Services will be on hand to answer questions about organ donation, and organ recipients – including a retired fire chief from Wilmington who has both donated and received a kidney – will share their experiences.

“I’m pretty confident we’re going to find a donor for me, so this is about trying to get the word out about organ donations,” said Johnson. “I don’t have a problem being the hit man – the advocate for others who would rather stay in the corner and not ask anyone.”

The Feb. 22 event is open to the public. For more information about the National Kidney Registry, visit kidneyregistry.org.

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