Sitting at the Brick & Bell coffee shop in La Jolla Shores on Sept. 4 with local residents Sandra Munson and Tim Johnson as they catch up over iced teas, one would never know that just three weeks prior, the two were undergoing surgery so Munson could donate a kidney to Johnson.
Or how many otherworldly factors had to fall into place for the donation to occur.
While the two only met in June — of this year — the journey for Johnson started almost five years ago.
“I felt like I had the flu one week, then I felt better,” he told the Light. “Then it came back a second week, then I felt better. When it came back a third week, my wife sent me to the doctor. I went to the ER for blood tests and the doctor pulls his chair up and tells me I had kidney failure. My kidneys were operating at around 3 percent total, from what I recall.”
Johnson was in the hospital for the following nine days so doctors could run tests, with doctors unable to find a definite cause.
From there, Johnson went on dialysis, spending four hours a day, three days a week in a facility.
“I’d get plugged in, sit there while the machine cleaned by blood, get unplugged, and go about my day,” Johnson explained. “It was taxing on the body, and took me the whole day to recover. I would go on Monday, feel good Tuesday, and start over Wednesday. It was three days a week for four years and eight months. I will admit, there were times when I was getting tired of it, but it was keeping me alive. I did what I had to do.”
The kidneys remove wastes and extra fluid, control blood pressure, make more red blood cells, keep bones healthy, and control pH levels in the body.
Johnson was told it would be six to eight years before he would receive a cadaver kidney (from a deceased organ donor), and over the last several years, many of his friends and family members were tested to see if they would be a match. (As of 2016, according to the National Kidney Foundation, there are 121,678 people waiting for organ transplants in the United States).
“I had a couple of ‘almosts’ that fell through,” Johnson continued. “I felt blessed that people wanted to try, but they weren’t a match for one reason or another. Doctors told me at the beginning not to hold my breath because these things fall through.
“The first few times things fell through, it was hard, but I wasn’t counting on it — the worst was how taxing it was for my family. I was removed from things just based on how I felt and the time commitment for dialysis. We’re all big travelers, so that got put on hold.”
Universe at work
Enter — somehow — Sandra Munson.
Despite common social circles, the two never crossed paths until this summer. Their children all went to La Jolla schools, but their grade-levels are staggered, so they didn’t connect through their children. And the Munsons frequented the Sushi on the Rock restaurant, which Johnson once owned (his brother now owns it).
“It’s really weird, because when I mention (Munson’s) name to people as part of my story, they all say, ‘Oh, Sandra, we know her!’ ” Johnson said.
Munson added: “And most of my friends know the Johnson family from one thing or another.”
To boot, Facebook often listed Kristi Johnson, Tim’s wife, as a person Munson may know. “When I went to look her up, Facebook showed we shared 100 mutual friends,” Munson said. “One of my best friends is friends with Kristi, and every once in a while, would ask how the Johnsons were doing.”
After a few years, Munson said she started to get the feeling her continued interest was a sign that maybe she should help. One day in December 2018, Munson saw a photo online of Johnson holding a sign his children had made that read “All my dad wants for X-mas is a kidney” and she made up her mind.
“I decided to message Kristi, whom I’d never met, and asked about Tim and his blood type, which I realize is weird,” Munson laughed. “She responded, and I let her know I was interested in seeing if I was a match. She connected me with Scripps Hospital.”
Six months of tests, follow-up calls, blood work and interviews later, Munson was cleared as a donor.
“But I didn’t want to just give a kidney to anyone, this was a driven mission,” she said. “So there had to be additional tests to make sure we were compatible.”
With Johnson standing 6-foot-4 and Munson 5-foot-6, one issue that quickly arose was making sure Munson’s kidney would even fit correctly in Johnson’s body.
But, in another unlikely twist of fate, as Munson explained: “My doctors told me my kidneys were larger than normal, and producing at 110 percent of normal. I don’t know the cause, but it ended up being a big part of why I was able to be a donor.
“Most times, you wouldn’t be able to take a kidney from a person my size and put it in someone that much taller. Another part is compatible tissue, and somehow the antigens in our tissues were a three-out-of-six match, which is the same as a parent and a child.
“I finally got the call that we were a match.”
A few weeks later, a surgery date was available for Aug. 13.
After some testing to make sure Johnson was healthy enough to receive the kidney, the date was confirmed.
At the hospital, Munson said she was treated like a VIP. “I got a hall-of-fame walk with the staff,” she said. “I got care packages, and people showered me with love. It was a never-ending love-fest.”
For Munson, the surgery took place on a Tuesday afternoon and she was home Thursday morning.
By Day 5, post-surgery, she was walking; by Day 9, she was driving. But, she notes, she maintained a strict diet and exercised ahead of the surgery so she could recover more easily.
For Johnson, the recovery was a little more extreme: “The kidney is about the size of your fist, so they had to cut me open and connect it to my main artery in my leg and my bladder. It took 34 staples to seal me back up ... so it was a little more painful for me. I can’t drive for a month and I was walking like a 90-year-old those first few days.”
He said he will be on medication for the rest of his life.
Although still in recovery, Johnson said his body accepted Munson’s kidney, and so far, everything is working. The best thing is not having to go through dialysis anymore, which is “huge,” he said, adding, “and I’m looking forward to having more energy and getting around in the outdoors without becoming winded. Not only did I feel terrible, but I limited my family, so I hope to be able to get back to spending time with them.”
Of his bestowing donor, Johnson said: “For Sandra to even think about this was unbelievable — especially considering she didn’t even know me … and for her to make it through is a prayer answered.”
Want to Know More?
• National Kidney Foundation: kidney.org
• American Kidney Fund: kidneyfund.org
• In California, those who apply for a driver license can sign up for the Organ & Tissue Donor Registry and receive a mark indicating such on their license.