Writer, Wedding Officiant Loves to Talk About His Transplanted Kidney
“Black Lives Matter, So Let’s Get Serious About Organ Donation”
Jim McFarlin likes to say he has two birthdays: June 15, the day he was born 67 years ago, and Nov. 18, 2011, the day he was reborn, after receiving his new kidney.
The gregarious writer/journalist, former standup comedian and wedding officiant and his wife, Karen, are eternally grateful to the parents of his donor: a 6-year-old girl who died after suffering a brain aneurysm on the playground. “I can’t imagine the depth of character it took for those parents to lose a child and say to themselves, ‘How can our child’s brief life benefit other lives?’” he said. “I appreciate their sacrifice more than I can say.”
The little girl was African American, as is Jim. Not only was the kidney a perfect match, but it grew to fit his 6’3” frame within a year. Jim’s experience illustrates the importance of increasing the number of African Americans and other minorities who sign up to be organ donors. Compatible blood types and tissue markers – which are more likely to be found among people of the same ethnicity and race – decrease the risk of organ rejection.
Diagnosed with kidney failure despite lack of symptoms
When Jim was young, the family physician told his parents that he had kidney problems, but the information was vague and no action was taken. When he grew older, Jim developed pre-diabetes and high blood pressure and took medication. But when he was laid off from a job and money was tight, he chose food over health insurance and stopped taking his medication.
When he later got another job and regained health insurance, he went to the doctor for a routine physical exam, where he learned – at age 55 – that he had Stage IV kidney failure, also known as end-stage renal disease (ESRD).
He was astonished because he had no symptoms. He had just started dating Karen long-distance – he was in Detroit, she was in Champaign, Ill. – and told her the news in case she wanted an out. “She said, ‘Oh, Jim, I don’t care if we have 20 years or 20 months together, the only thing that matters is that we’re together,’” he recalls.
In a matter of months, he left his job as an information officer at Wayne State University in Detroit, moved to Champaign and began daily peritoneal dialysis at home. He waited more than two years and after several false starts, he finally received his kidney transplant from that 6-year-old at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.
While dialysis kept him going, it’s a hard way to live because “you never feel like you’re 100 percent,” he said.
After he received his new kidney, he was able to fully enjoy the things that fulfill him: spending time with Karen, magazine article and book writing, and serving as an ordained wedding officiant.
He has married hundreds of couples since 2007 and says it’s an avocation he adores. “Everyone is dressed up and there’s love in the air,” he said. “As a former comedian, I get to do my act in front of a captive audience, and at the end there’s champagne and cake.”
Nicknamed Kid Kidney
Jim says talking about donation and transplantation are among his favorite topics. “They call me ‘Kid Kidney’ in Detroit because it feels like everybody there who needs a transplant or knows somebody who does comes to me for advice.” he said.
He relishes being an ambassador for various organizations, including Gift of Hope. He loves talking to people to ask them to consider signing up to be an organ donor — especially African Americans, who make up 40% of people in Illinois who are waiting for kidneys but only 10% of donors.
“I say, ‘I’m exhibit A, and I look good and healthy, right?” said Jim.
When he’s encouraging people to donate, he’s found it best to listen to their concerns. “I say, ‘It’s your body, not mine, so let’s talk about why you think it’s a bad idea.’” He then assures them: “People from all of the major religions have chosen organ donation; no, they don’t kill you just to take your organs; and yes, you can still have an open casket funeral. If I can knock down your concerns and fears, why not do it? I can guarantee that you won’t need your organs when you’re gone.”
Jim added, “Receiving a kidney from someone of the same race increases the odds of success, and the bottom line is, we’ve got to get more people to sign up to be donors. If Black lives really matter, let’s get serious about organ donation.”
Join the Organ and Tissue Donor Registry by Clicking Here or Texting COMMIT to 51555.