cop kidney transplant
Diseases & Conditions

Police Detective Saves a Life—By Donating a Kidney

By on 09/06/2018

Upper Merion Police Det. Brendan Dougherty is accustomed to witnessing the acts of everyday heroism that are part of a police officer’s job: rushing towards trouble instead of avoiding it, intervening in violent confrontations, resuscitating someone who’s collapsed.

So he’s certain about this: there was nothing heroic—to him, anyway—about donating his kidney to a friend. It was, he says, just “a minor inconvenience.” But, he acknowledges, it had a profound impact on James Woods’ life.

The transplant took place at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia on March 2.

Dougherty, now 41, was a teenager when he began volunteering at the Glenside Fire Company and met Woods, who was already a member. Woods was 13 years older, but the camaraderie at a firehouse is such that “you’re friendly with everybody,” Woods said.

What Dougherty and most others at the firehouse didn’t know was that Woods was struggling with a genetic disease that killed his mother:  polycystic kidney disease. Woods eventually had to leave his job as a Montgomery County 911 dispatcher for fire and ambulance, and also had to stop volunteering as a firefighter. After that—although they live a few blocks from each other in Glenside—the two men lost touch for years.

As his health deteriorated, Woods’ life became defined by chronic illness, by weakness and exhaustion and enforced idleness. When life became nearly unbearable, he was persuaded by a friend to start a Facebook page to raise awareness about organ donation, and to advocate for a kidney for himself.

The two men reconnected when Dougherty joined the fire department’s board of directors, and recruited Woods back to be on the board with him. “I knew he wasn’t feeling well, but I didn’t know what it was about,” Dougherty said. Then a mutual friend directed him to the Facebook page.

“I was out raking leaves one afternoon with my kids and I decided, on the spot, to do it,” he said of donating a kidney to Woods. “I went inside and called Einstein.” He didn’t mention it to Woods, because he knew the odds were long that he’d be a blood match. One night in December, the two of them sat in a three-hour meeting together at the firehouse—the last meeting Woods felt he’d be strong enough to attend without being in a wheelchair.

The next day, when Woods was summoned to Einstein for blood work to test a possible match, he saw Dougherty getting his blood drawn. He assumed at first that Dougherty was also sick with kidney problems.  “When he walked out smiling at me, I knew,” Woods said.

But what were the odds that a longtime acquaintance, who lived around the corner, would be a match—especially when Woods’ previous kidney transplant had reduced his chances? Einstein’s Dr. Kamran Khanmoradi said that while a first-time recipient can receive an organ from anyone with the same blood type, a patient with a previous transplant develops antibodies that sensitize their bodies to subsequent donors. But it was, indeed, a match. Because, Dougherty said, “It was meant to be.”

“Everything in my life has been service to others, make sure everyone is OK. What’s really hard about this situation is you’re used to being the hero and now somebody else had to save you.”—James Woods

Dougherty waves off praise and walks away when people call him a hero. He can’t stand it when his mother brags about him. He was admittedly surprised at how emotional he felt in the aftermath, but also says the consequences for him were minimal: he couldn’t play the bagpipes in his band and, for a while, couldn’t lift up his two young children.

“I don’t think it’s that big of a deal what I did,” he said, but he acknowledges the enormous impact it has had on Woods. That imbalance is “the craziest part of being a living donor,” he said. Woods will not have to endure the hardship of dialysis, which dominates your time and can have major complications; he’ll regain strength when he fully recovers, be able to resume a normal existence and potentially “live longer,” Dr. Khanmoradi said.

Dougherty and Woods talk on the phone at least once a week now and are “better than blood brothers,” Dougherty said. The best part for him is to see Woods regain the sarcasm for which he is well known and loved.

“I don’t want to pick on his job, but he doesn’t do a lot,” Woods said, tongue-in-cheek, of Dougherty’s police work, explaining why they talk so often on the phone. “We’re both in the same boat, watching grass grow.” Woods’ sense of humor has sustained him through decades of sickness, and through his first kidney transplant in 2001.

But Woods can also be serious. He struggles with the imbalance that Dougherty described—that he benefited so dramatically from Dougherty’s gesture.  “It’s just the mentality when you’re a public servant, you’re always looking out for everyone else,” Woods said.  “Everything in my life has been service to others, make sure everyone is OK. What’s really hard about this situation is you’re used to being the hero and now somebody else had to save you.”

In gratitude, he’s joined Dougherty in pledging to do whatever he can to raise awareness about organ transplant. There are 354 patients waiting for a kidney at Einstein, alone. More than 103,000 patients are waiting for a kidney in the United States. The average wait is five years.

Dougherty had recovered enough to run in this year’s Gift of Life Donor Dash on April 15, a 10K/5K race to promote organ donation. He invited Woods to come, but Woods declined. “Unless there’s a really big dog chasing me, I’m not running anywhere,” he said. “Now if there was a 50-yard dash with a cigarette break and beer at the end, I’d do that.”

Woods doesn’t drink or smoke. He isn’t well enough to run. It’s just another joke that Dougherty considers the best reward—certainly better than being considered a hero—for giving his kidney away.

Photo by Wes Hilton

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