A Stranger Asks, 'Why Not Me?'

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Heidi, Ben, and Oliver Johnston after transplant surgery. (Courtesy)
Heidi, Ben, and Oliver Johnston after transplant surgery. (Courtesy)

While about 6,000 living kidney donations happen every year in the U.S., they usually take place between family members or friends. Not so for Ben Johnston and Dr. Ferenc Jolesz. Until a few days before surgery, the men had never met.

Dr. Jolesz and Johnston, together with members of their families, tell their story for WBUR's Kind World, celebrating acts of kindness.

MARTA JOLESZ: In 2007, 2008, my dad’s kidneys were failing, so our family was tested and I was the closest match. My dad resisted for a while. It’s hard for a recipient to accept that someone’s willing to go through the process of kidney donation for them, especially their child. For me, it just couldn’t happen quick enough. I just couldn’t wait to get the kidney out and give it to my dad.

Unfortunately, my kidney was slowly rejected. It was decided that it was failing fast and he needed a transplant at that time. The cadaver list, when you get on it, it’s usually a five- to 10-year wait. My dad didn’t have that time. Most people I don’t think have that time.

We spent, like, months trying to get people to write articles about my dad, and nobody would. And, finally, our local paper did, the Brookline TAB, and it was first page — we were so excited. But we didn’t get any responses from it. Maybe, like, three people. And one of those people was Ben’s teacher. We found Ben’s teacher and then, in turn, found Ben.

BEN JOHNSTON: I didn’t know what living kidney donation was, I didn’t know that living donation existed, and I clicked on the link, I was like, “Wow, you can actually donate while you’re still alive.” And I was like, “That’s crazy, you know, I kind of want to read about this.” And so I read just through whatever came up on Google, and your life expectancy’s not lowered, the risk is really, really low. And so I thought, “Oh, he’ll have no problem finding a donor.”

Almost immediately after that, I thought, “Well, not if everyone that reads this article comes to the same conclusion as I do." You know, what if this was my dad or my father-in-law or someone that I cared about, and I was unable to donate and no one came forward.

That just kind of stuck in my head, you know? Like, why not me? At that point I thought, “Well, I should probably tell my wife.”

HEIDI JOHNSTON: I thought, “You’re crazy.” And then he said to me “Do you think I’m crazy?” And of course I said, “No. No! I don’t think you’re crazy. But I do think there are some things to think about.”

Our son at that time was a little over two months old. I was trying to figure out how in the world I was going to be a full-time mom and a full-time pastor and I was not on board.

BEN JOHNSTON: I’m not really one of those superstitious, “the universe gives us signs” type of people. I knew I may not be a match. It just wasn’t really surprising to me when lab results started coming back and said, “Okay. You’re a tissue match.” It just was like, oh, yeah, that’s what I was expecting, okay, what’s the next step?

HEIDI JOHNSTON: He asked me to think about it for a week. And what came to me at the end of that week was a total surprise to me, because, I guess what expected to hear was what I had been thinking, but the direction that I got was, “Practice what you preach. This is the opportunity for your family to give beyond your comfort zone, and you need to support Ben in doing this.”

BEN JOHNSTON: After we had a date scheduled, I did wanna meet Frank, and I wanted to meet his daughters also.

FERENC JOLESZ (Frank) : It’s a double thing, because you have, not only considering that you are in this situation, but somebody else, for you. And, of course, I was thinking about Ben like I was thinking about my daughter in the first time.

MARTA JOLESZ: They had sent us some pictures as they were saying good-bye to Ben before he was wheeled into the surgery room, and, you know, the family looked so happy, Ben had a thumbs up, and they all just seemed so positive.

BEN JOHNSTON: Went into surgery. They said it would probably take 3 to 3 ½ hours. And then about the same for the actual transplant.

HEIDI JOHNSTON: The doctors came in to get me after two hours. And they said, “So we’re done. We’re finished taking out Ben’s kidney.” And I thought, “How can you be done already? It’s only been two hours.” And the one doctor said, “Well, your husband’s insides were very orderly.” He was so happy.

MARTA JOLESZ: When both of them were in their rooms and doing well, I think that was the moment that I just — I knew we had done it. When my dad got Ben’s kidney, he was already a different person. His skin tone, his energy, everything when we saw him out of surgery he just seemed like a new person.

HEIDI JOHNSTON: I have this photo of them reaching out and holding hands, and, you know, Frank just kept saying, “You saved my life.”

BEN JOHNSTON: Everyone thinks that we're a hero, and it's like our little secret that we're the ones who get all the pleasure. It's like the joy of giving to the ultimate exponent. It was emotionally just really intense. In a good way.

FERENC JOLESZ: That moment, you know, you cannot express with words, what do you feel. Every way you express this sounds trivial. But you can feel something that's from both sides. It's a unique situation that you find somebody, a strange person, who sacrifice as much, and help you to have a second life.

Kind World is a project of the WBUR iLab, celebrating stories of kindness and the profound effect that one act can have on our lives.

Kind World is produced by Zack Ezor, Lisa Tobin, and Nate Goldman. If you have a story of kindness to share, please send us a message or email us at

This segment aired on November 27, 2014.

Zack Ezor Producer
Zack Ezor was formerly a producer for WBUR.



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