FAIRBORN — For nearly two decades, they both worked at Wright State University at the same time, not far from each other. But they never met.
Then in a very cosmic way, their paths crossed when Joyce Howes donated one of her kidneys to Phil Combs.
“It’s a game-changer — just to be able to give that kind of gift to somebody else so they can have their life back again,” said the 60-year-old Combs, whose kidney failure had forced him to undergo dialysis for 18 months. “I was kind of gobsmacked, but I was also very happy. I thought, ‘Wow. Somebody decided to do this for me I don’t even really know.’”
Combs’ kidneys, damaged by decades of diabetes, began to fail in early 2016. He was slowly being poisoned by his own body. On Oct. 17, 2016, he went to the emergency room and was told that he had barely escaped going into a coma because there was such a high level of toxins in his blood. He began emergency dialysis.
Kidney dialysis is a life-saving treatment that artificially removes waste and toxins from the body by filtering blood through a machine. It is typically done several times a week in sessions that each last several hours. Dialysis is not as efficient as real kidneys and can produce side effects that include weight gain, low blood pressure, muscle cramps and infection.
Combs spent several months in hemodialysis until the port inserted in his abdomen healed then switched to peritoneal dialysis. This enabled him to receive the cleaning his blood needed while he slept, though it took nine hours per night.
“Most people have no idea what it’s like to be that sick in the first place,” said Combs. “You’re always feeling bad. Even when you’re feeling good, you’re feeling bad.”
A few days after he returned to work from the hospital in 2016, Combs learned that his job at Wright State’s Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) had been eliminated due to budget cuts.
Combs sent out two mailings to the Wright State community in 2017 trying to find a donor. A few people responded but said they couldn’t be donors. Five friends outside of Wright State volunteered to be donors but turned out not to be matches. Combs resigned himself to being on a waiting list for a kidney from a deceased donor.
But he didn’t know about Joyce Howes.
When Howes read Combs’ appeal for a donor and realized he had lost his job, income and benefits, she didn’t hesitate. She immediately picked up the phone and called the University of Cincinnati Health Center to offer herself as a donor candidate.
After sending the hospital samples of her blood, she waited … and waited … and waited. Two months went by.
“I assumed I was not a match. Then I got the phone call,” she said. “I was shocked.”
Combs also got a call from the center at the same time last January, telling him a person from Wright State by the name of Joyce Howes had volunteered to be a donor and was a match. The two of them met for coffee at Bob Evans.
“We had a very nice conversation; everything clicked,” Combs recalled. “It completely changed my outlook and attitude about what could happen. It was indeed life-changing.”
Howes, 67, underwent an immense battery of medical tests at the Cincinnati hospital in preparation for the transplant, in part to make sure she was healthy enough for the surgery.
“I knew the chances of a complication for me were vanishingly small; the chances of a full recovery without complication were great,” she said. “And the chances of me having kidney disease with one kidney were essentially no different from if I had two kidneys. So I did not feel I was at risk, barring something truly weird. I wasn’t worried at all.”
On April 30, Howes and Combs found themselves in adjacent operating rooms. Their surgeries were done simultaneously.
“Today, I’m definitely better than I was, but some days I have to measure my progress with a micrometer,” he said. “My body was more broken than I imagined it was.”
Since the surgery, Howes and Combs have remained in touch, even having lunch together.
“I suspect we’ll have a lifelong relationship,” Howes told Combs. “There’s definitely that connection. You’re walking around with what used to be my kidney. Now it’s your kidney.”
Howes said the transplant experience has made her an evangelist for people becoming living kidney donors.
“I feel gratified that I was able to help Phil in a fairly significant way for a very small sacrifice on my part,” she said. “Share your spare. Everybody has a spare.”
People interested in becoming a donor candidate can call the University of Cincinnati Kidney Program at 513-584-7001 or the National Kidney Foundation at 513-961-8105 in Cincinnati or 614-882-8184 in Columbus.