For several years, chronic illnesses were stealing from Sammy Merritt.
Like most thieves, they were subtle at first; diabetes and high blood pressure were working hand-in-hand to sap his energy, take away his appetite and limit his ability to play with his children. He saw doctors, he took medicine, and still he grew worse.
“Once you live with it for a while, besides being tired and sick all the time, you don’t really notice it unless your blood pressure or your sugar is too high,” the lifelong Elyrian said.
His world grew smaller. One day he went to the zoo with his family and he had to be pushed in a wheelchair. He felt hopeless; he felt like a burden on his loved ones.
Then he started passing out.
By the time he came to in the hospital, he was being introduced to his new doctor: a kidney specialist.
“I was like, ‘How? Not one time did my doctor ever say anything about my kidneys.’ That was about five years ago. I found out my kidneys are gone,” Merritt said.
His specialist said he had about 8 percent kidney function. He resisted dialysis until it dipped to 3 percent within a year. About the same time, he was added to the list of kidney patients in need of a transplant.
Three times a week, four hours a day, Merritt, 51, would travel to dialysis for machines to do the work of his kidneys. By then his illness had stolen his work, too, as a custodian at the General Johnnie Wilson Middle School in Lorain.
But on Sept. 4 — Labor Day — a glint of hope appeared. It started with a phone call.
“They called and were like, ‘We got a donor who wants to give you a kidney. You matched with her, would you want it?’” Merritt said.
Surgery was scheduled for Sept. 12 at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center.
“He called me and was like, ‘Are you sitting down?’ I said, ‘What, you got a job?’ because he’s been trying desperately to get a job and couldn’t find one because he goes to dialysis three times a week and trying to supplement the little bit he gets on disability,” said his sister, Nancy Merritt Payne, who lives in Michigan. “He said ‘They called me a couple hours ago.’ I was on cloud nine saying, ‘Thank you, Jesus!’ ”
Merritt had spent a few years on the kidney transplant list through University Hospitals in Cleveland until he had a chance conversation at dialysis. Another dialysis patient suggested he get his name on the Columbus-area transplant list because it had a reputation for faster matches. All potential transplant recipients are listed on a nationwide database, but there also are matches made by regional organ procurement agencies.
Merritt was added to the list at Wexner, one of the busiest kidney transplant programs in the nation. About 100 kidneys from living donors are transplanted there each year. Roughly four in 10 organ or tissue transplants per year are from living donors, according to federal statistics. Two months later, he was readying for surgery.
As he lay in his hospital bed the night before, he admitted being scared. Doctors warned him of possible complications, per protocol, and he joked with his wife, Fawn, that it sounded like maybe the doctors didn’t want him to take the kidney after all.
“It’s scary but you know, I look at the big picture. This is a gift from God,” Merritt said.
Before and after
The morning of the transplant, Merritt’s donor was taken into surgery first. Merritt was taken shortly after. Within hours the donor kidney would be functioning in Merritt with the help of anti-rejection medicine.
All went well until the day after the surgery. Merritt started to run a temperature. His body was rejecting the medicine and the new kidney.
But by day three, all had righted itself and “it started taking,” Merritt said.
By Sept. 16, Merritt felt like a new man. He was walking around the hospital three times a day and climbing stairs, plus his appetite had returned. For the first time in two years, Merritt was once again urinating on his own.
One of his first priorities was to thank the donor he thought of as his guardian angel. He and his wife told his doctors and his nurses of their desire.
Two days after his surgery he had his chance. An older woman walked into his room and told him she was his donor.
“She was just the nicest — she was like one of my mom’s old friends. Nice and caring,” he said.
She is a retiree living about an hour from Columbus, with grown children and grandkids. To her, signing up to give away an organ was the fulfillment of a 20-year wish, she told the Merritts.
It wasn’t possible while she was working and raising her family, but the idea came back. The donor spends her free time volunteering with an agency that works with troubled youths, and one of the kids in her charge was a transplant recipient. She went and signed up to be a donor.
As it turned out, Merritt had been walking past her room on his daily laps. The woman was going home that day and they exchanged contact information and took photos together. The Merritts gave her the letters that their children — Samuel, 8, and Shyann, 11 — had written to her before he left for the hospital.
“The kids were thanking her for saving their dad and giving them a new life and giving him a chance to live longer and play with them and have more energy and have a new outlook on life,” Merritt said. “She started crying. My wife started crying.”
“It’s just a blessing to donate for somebody that doesn’t even know you to be willing to give you their organ,” Payne said. “If he could get a donor, other people shouldn’t get discouraged. Keep praying. Hopefully a donor will come.”
For information about donation or to register to donate, visit https://organdonor.gov.
Contact Rini Jeffers at 329-7155 or firstname.lastname@example.org.