Saturday night, surrounded by his wife and friends, South Side resident Jim Maley will celebrate his 64th birthday with an inviting meal at one of Columbus’ finest steakhouses.
The celebratory toast won’t be directed solely at Maley, though. His buddy Barry Miller, part of the group dining together, is also celebrating a birthday Saturday, his 68th.
And without Miller, Maley — whose friends call him Wally — might not have made it to this birthday.
More than two years ago — on Aug. 19, 2016 — Miller donated a kidney to Maley. Before that, the two were just acquaintances in a Friday-night golf league.
“This will be the first time we’ve ever celebrated our birthdays together,” said Maley, a commercial-truck salesman at Mark Wahlberg Chevrolet. “It’s hard to put into words. This means the world to me.”
The offer of life from a near-stranger has given way to a bond that both men and their families expect to endure for the rest of their lives.
Their shared blood type and birthday are among the intriguing details of their story that have prompted Maley and Miller to view their friendship as destiny.
“I knew I was doing something good, but it was so much bigger,” said Miller, a Clintonville resident. “He got a kidney; I got a friend.” Miller, who is retired from work in a variety of fields, said he can’t necessarily pinpoint what prompted his interest in becoming a kidney donor, but after researching the process in the early months of 2015, he decided to commit to it.
“I felt like it was something I was called to do,” he said. “I have a very strong faith (Methodist) and a background in the church.”
Initially, he planned to do an “indirect” donation — one that would make the organ available to the general public.
But about the time that he was preparing to begin the application process, he learned from another member of their golf league at Homestead Springs in Groveport that Maley had been on dialysis for five years and was on the transplant list.
For 15 years, the two had battled hard on the course and shared beers and jokes in the clubhouse, yet they knew little about each other personally.
“All these years, and I never knew he was on dialysis,” Miller said.
Indeed, Maley’s wife of almost 28 years, Ellen, said her husband rarely missed work or golf-league play, despite his grueling dialysis schedule of four hours a day, three times a week and his worsening condition.
In fact, Wally Maley had just finished a round of golf in the summer of 2015 when he got a call out of the blue from Miller, who had found Maley’s phone number in their golf-league roster.
“I didn’t recognize the number until he said, ‘It’s Barry,’” Maley recalled. “I thought he was calling about the golf league, to have us show up later or show up earlier.”
The conversation took a distinctly different turn.
“You’re on dialysis, right?” Miller asked.
“Yes,” Maley replied.
“I’m thinking about donating a kidney. Can I ask you some questions?”
Even then, Maley said, he assumed that Miller had some general concerns. He certainly wasn’t prepared for what came next.
“He said, ‘I’m filling out an application right now, and at the bottom it asks for a recommended recipient,” Maley said. “Would you mind if I put your name there?’
“I about fell out of my chair.”
Miller then asked Maley two follow-up questions that he needed for the paperwork: the intended recipient’s blood type (O, the same as Miller’s) and his birth date (Jan. 12, 1955; Miller was born the same day in 1951).
Although their phone exchange that day marked only the beginning of the lengthy process for determining whether Miller could actually donate a kidney to Maley, those initial coincidences inspired all the faith the two needed.
“You can’t write a script like this,” Miller said.
Maley knew from about the age of 30 that he would eventually need a kidney transplant.
His mother had just learned that she had a hereditary condition called polycystic kidney disease — a diagnosis her only child would later face, too — which causes the kidneys to enlarge and lose function.
Like many others with the disease, Maley didn’t exhibit many symptoms until his mid-50s. He began dialysis, a treatment through which waste is removed from the body, but the process took its toll, physically and mentally, after several years, Ellen Maley said.
“I could see his health deteriorate because of that,” she said. “His outlook … was pretty poor.”
Although Miller’s offer brought hope, the couple tempered their excitement to minimize any eventual disappointment.
Ellen Maley herself had been tested but wasn’t a match, and twice previously the Maleys had received a call alerting them to a potential kidney, only to learn that the organ went to a different candidate.
Plus, Miller still needed to go through a battery of physical and mental assessments — the results of which he would pass along to Wally Maley during at golf on Fridays — to determine whether his kidney was a match, that he was healthy enough to donate and that he had the right motivation for doing so.
“We do a full psychological workup,” said Dr. Amer Rajab, director of pancreatic and kidney transplantation at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center and the surgeon who performed the operations.
“The most important thing is: Are they completely altruistic about doing this? Are they coming to this willingly? Mr. Miller first came to us wanting to donate to anyone.”
Miller’s age, though at the higher end of the window for donors, mattered little because he and his kidney were extremely healthy, Rajab said.
If there’s one available, living donors are preferred, he said, noting that Wexner Medical Center performs 60 to 100 living-kidney transplants a year.“You know the donor’s complete history,” he said. “You’re taking that kidney that is working up until the very last minute. In 99 percent of cases, the kidney works immediately. The minute you give (the recipient) blood, they start making urine.”Such was the case with Maley and Miller.Upon walking into his room after surgery, Ellen Maley said, she noticed an immediate change in her husband’s coloring, not to mention his attitude — improvements that have persisted during the past 2 1/2 years.“He’s more alive at this point and has more freedom,” she said, referring to the fact that he no longer needs dialysis. “How wonderful that it turned out to be someone he knew? We’ve gotten to meet his family, and he’s gotten to know ours.”***A few months before the transplant surgery, some members of the Miller and Maley families met at a restaurant in German Village to discuss the donation.The immediate support that the Maleys felt from Miller’s mother and two sisters — Barry is one of six Miller siblings — put the couple’s minds at ease about accepting the gift.“They were so happy this was going on,” Wally Maley said. “You’d think they’d be skeptical. … You would’ve thought I was giving (a kidney) to Barry with how supportive they were.”Sarah Miller, who lives with her son, wasn’t surprised by Barry’s decision to donate a kidney.“He’s very generous in helping people,” she said. “I’m really proud of him for having made this kind of commitment.”Plus, she said, her family had already been involved in organ donation.In 1966, after her 9-year-old niece, Nancy Hancock, was fatally struck by a car, the child’s kidney became one of the first to be transplanted in Columbus.Like Maley and Miller, Nancy Hancock was born on Jan. 12.“It’s freaky,” Ellen Maley said. “Is it a coincidence, or was it all meant to be?”The two men would say the latter.That’s definitely something to toast.
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