The gift of a lifetime
August 18, 2017
As if having a traumatic brain injury in common wasn’t enough, Jim Eastman and Scott La Point now share another life-altering event.
Six weeks ago, La Point’s left kidney was transplanted into Eastman,bolstering his health and adding years to his life.
Eastman’s journey to replace his failing kidneys is a masterful study in how to gracefully navigate a terrifying health issue. La Point’s story speaks to how offering support and charity can be a way of living every day.
Eastman, who has lived in Niwot for over 25 years, had absolutely no health concerns when on a whim in 2000 he decided to plot more than a dozen years of his annual physical exam blood results on a spreadsheet.
A steady increase year over year in his creatinine level (a measure used to indicate possible renal issues) concerned him. Bringing that data to his primary care physician set into motion a referral to a kidney specialist, a doctor of nephrology.
Additional testing clinched his formal diagnosis of IgA nephropathy, also known as Berger’s Disease, an autoimmune disease that can cause inflammation and damage to kidney tissue and ultimately lead to End Stage Renal Disease. This was Eastman’s fate by 2014.
Eastman’s kidney function, at age 65, was so depleted that being on dialysis was his best option. And for eight hours every day for nearly three years, Eastman was attached to his peritoneal dialysis machine.
But Eastman is a man of action and optimism and he decided dialysis was not going to be his destiny. He saw it as a temporary situation while he moved toward the most optimal solution – a kidney transplant.
He joined over 100,000 people on the national organ waiting list who are in need of a kidney transplant. When a person signs up to be an organ donor (either online at http://www.donatelifecolorado.org/register-now/ ) or with the DMV, upon death, any viable organs are donated to people on this waiting list based on a prioritization system.
Unfortunately, Eastman’s age was a factor that didn’t play well with the ranking system that favors younger people who will ultimately have longer post-transplant survival rates. At least 22 people a day on that list die waiting for a donor.
Quality of life is compromised while on dialysis. The emotional, financial and physical tolls are beyond measure. So, rather than simply wait to rise to the top of the list (which can take over five years), Jim and his wife, Ruthie Eastman, decided to take the proactive pathway.
Looking for a donor
Armed with information from The University of Colorado Hospital (UCHealth) Kidney Donor Champion Program, they took their plea for a living kidney donor to the streets, literally.
Ruthie Eastman put a sign on the back of her car in huge letters reading, “HUSBAND NEEDS KIDNEY, PLEASE CALL,” and her phone number. Eastman had a sign on his car saying, “I NEED A KIDNEY.”
They recruited friends and family to wear shirts requesting a kidney for Eastman, they handed out business cards with his story, put up posters at local hang outs, and harnessed the power of social media — slathering Facebook with posts and setting up a dedicated website.
“I’ve always been a very independent, self-contained person,” Eastman said. “But I had come to the point where I really needed someone’s help to get this done. So the Donor Champion class got me over the hump, and I realized I needed to explain my story to people.”
Living donors make up a third of kidney transplants and receiving a kidney from a living donor will provide twice the longevity to a recipient, as well as lower the risk of rejection. Risks to a kidney donor are low and the donor’s remaining kidney will enlarge naturally to take up the slack.
Calls came in as a result of their marketing efforts (especially the sign on Ruthie’s car) and at least 11 people underwent the comprehensive physical testing to evaluate whether they would be a successful transplant donor.
A close friend was the first to step up and, and even though she was in excellent health, she was a mere two percentage points away from one important measure threshold and was not allowed to proceed.
Thus began Eastman’s decision to “squelch any enthusiasm” as each potential donor was evaluated. While the clock ticked, Jim and Ruthie continued their efforts and hoped a qualified living donor would step up.
The positivity Eastman exuded was extended to others in the same situation as he was.
Jim became a “kidney peer,” reaching out to mentor others on dialysis while they were awaiting donors.
“Not everyone is resilient,” Eastman says.
He’s forged friendships and buoyed many others by offering his experience and a shoulder to lean on.
Beating life-altering health challenges wasn’t new to Eastman. In 1990, Eastman was involved in a rollover car accident, leaving him with whiplash and plenty of soft tissue damage. But the brain damage he sustained would take two harrowing years to be discovered. By that time, he truly believed he was going crazy.
Playing the hand dealt
Eastman’s type-A personality, his marriage, career and compensation-driven life were derailed. Through neuropsychological testing, it was determined synapses in Eastman’s brain had been sheared off in the car accident.
While brain damage was a terrible outcome he never would have wanted, learning what was truly important in life, slowing down, and no longer being driven by work was a consequence he embraced. He’s learned, “This is common in the brain injury world.”
Eastman adopted compensatory strategies to cope with life’s challenges. Through cognitive restructuring, speech and rapid eye therapies, and especially with the help of biofeedback techniques, Eastman’s life and outlook improved immensely.
He joined a community of fellow brain injury patients in support groups, both as a participant and eventually as a group facilitator. And that is where he and Scott La Point met and became friends.
The story begins
The two men became acquainted nearly 10 years ago while attending a local brain injury support group meeting.
La Point, who is now 54, suffered a brain injury in 1993 when a truck struck him while bicycling, causing multiple fractures and putting him in a coma for four days.
La Point’s hardcore, competitive cycling had been more than a simple hobby.
“I didn’t bike to live, I lived to bike” La Point said.
But, as he recovered from his serious injuries, he had the same realizations as Eastman. Life was more than what he had focused on pre-accident.
He began to value his life differently and believed his near-death experience occurred for a purpose, that being to help others. He committed himself to formal education around the topic of traumatic brain injuries and prepared himself to be a professional in the field. He moved his family to the East Coast to get his masters and then his doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology.
Early last year, Eastman learned La Point had moved back to Colorado and was now living in Loveland. Eastman invited him to assist at an upcoming brain injury meeting.
While getting reacquainted in the parking lot before the meeting, La Point casually inquired about the kidney needed sign on the back of the Eastman’s car. Eastman explained the medical facts around his failing kidney.
When the meeting was over, La Point told Eastman he would like to get tests to be the kidney donor.
“When you meet someone and connect, it’s like you’ve known each other for years and years,” La Point said. “Even though we hadn’t seen each other for a while, I felt that affinity for Jim.”
When La Point got home that night, he told his wife, Amy La Point, he needed to know his blood type and explained his desire to donate a kidney to Eastman. He described her as being “freaked out” initially. She “didn’t know Jim from anyone.”
Before they knew what a kidney donation entailed, La Point’s parents were worried about the safety of donating. His three sons, ages 6, 9, and 11, were heavy on their mind.
After researching kidney donation, with his physician father-in-law’s input, and his wife getting to know Eastman better, it didn’t take long for his family, including his twin brother, to move toward being supportive. Eastman explains that “education goes a long way in helping others be onboard with kidney donation.”
People have a redundant kidney and owing to their deep faith, Scott and his wife believe the auxiliary kidney exists because it’s an “opportunity to give one away out of love for someone in need.”
La Point underwent medical screening tests his wife describes as being the equivalent of “that of an astronaut.”
It turned out La Point’s blood type didn’t match Eastman’s, but he has the universal blood type, O negative, which would work. La Point’s excellent health allowed him to be accepted as Eastman’s donor and transplant surgery was planned for February of this year. Eastman and his wife told those closest to them that Eastman was going to get a new kidney.
Crushingly, there was a twist in the road that dashed this happy news.
La Point knew going into his pre-op physical that he hadn’t been feeling well, but he wrote off the headaches and coughing as a bad cold. Chest x-rays revealed something more sinister, swollen lymph nodes around his heart.
The transplant plan came to a grinding halt and Jim assumed that this was going to be permanent, and that his friend wouldn’t work as a donor.
“(I) felt like I was at the Superbowl, fourth and one, and I had decided to go for it but missed,” Eastman said. “That was kind of the low point on this roller coaster. “
La Point was not about to give up though.
“I’m a big person on ‘you have to follow through,’” Scott said.
The depth of his motivation to help his friend and the desire to set an example for his children stirred him to contact his donor coordinator at UCHealth repeatedly, letting them know he felt better.
Biopsies of his lymph nodes showed he had a pulmonary infection, and rest helped him recover. In May he pushed for a CT scan proving his infection had totally cleared up.
“And then everything just happened so quickly,” La Point said with a huge smile.
La Point got the official approval from UCHealth’s Nephrology Department first and broke the exciting news to Eastman by asking, “Are you free June 29?”
The big day arrived and transplant surgery went smoothly for both men. The following day Eastman experienced bleeding problems and was moved to the ICU. He was released, but stayed near the hospital for 10 days in a hotel.
This turned out to be a wise decision because he developed an “extremely painful grapefruit size hematoma pressing on the new kidney” requiring emergency surgery. It was a bit of a setback for his recovery, but he’s been home in Niwot for several weeks.
Both men are doing very well now. Since donating, La Point has even gotten back on his bike for a ride.
Eastman’s energy level is increasing and, with more rest he jokingly says, “My goal is to keep up with Scott on the bike.”
They reminisced about a trail ride they did together pre-surgery where they wandered off course and got a tad lost, adding 10 miles to their planned ride.
The solid bond between the two men is evident.
“Scott is a brother to me and I feel that I have a new extended family in the La Point clan,” Eastman said. “There are a lot of nice people out there. This whole process has confirmed that for me. In my three weeks at UCH, I’ve never felt such love and light around me.”
Eastman and La Point’s goal is to get the word out about becoming an organ donor and especially a living kidney donor. They also continue to be involved with mentoring traumatic brain injury survivors through The Colorado Brain Injury Alliance.
Eastman is a kidney peer, and helps with Donate Life, the organization that is devoted to saving lives through organ transplants, and La Point is training to be a donor champion and donor advocate with Donor Alliance.
Both men are living examples of the fact that accidents and illnesses can lead to moments that reaffirm the goodness of people.
For information about becoming an organ donor, please contact Donate Life at http://www.DonateLife.net. For kidney specific questions regarding becoming a living donor or participating in a kidney peer program, please go to the National Kidney Foundation at http://www.Kidney.org. Paired kidney donations, which help more than one person with the donation of a kidney, is another option and can be explored by going to http://www.unos.org/donation/kidney-paired-donation. To find out more about brain injury support groups, the Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado provides information at http://www.BIAColorado.org.