Brother to Brother: A Kidney Transplant Story

How one brother used telehealth services to offer a life-saving gift.
Patient with his family in Walt Disney World.
Jim Flanagan enjoying family time in Walt Disney World.

Jim Flanagan’s health journey started as a medical mystery of sorts. “I would be working and get light headed and feel like I was going to pass out,” Jim explained. “When I told my wife after it happened a few times, she made me an appointment with my doctor.”

After taking his blood pressure, the nurse asked if Jim normally had high blood pressure. A doctor came in and took it again. It was 240 over 180 (a healthy blood pressure level is 120/80). The doctor told Jim that she would have to send him right to the emergency room. A blood pressure that high could lead to a stroke.

Curiously, Jim did not feel like he was about to have a stroke. In fact, besides the occasional dizziness, he felt perfectly fine. When the emergency room could not figure out what was causing the high blood pressure, Jim was admitted to the hospital for observation. His blood work revealed kidney problems and a week later, they came to a diagnosis: Ig A Nephropathy. Abnormal protein deposits built up inside the tiny filters of Jim’s kidney and had caused long-term damage.

“They told me I was in the later stages of the disease and I would eventually need a transplant,” Jim said. After a gut feeling and bad patient experience at a local hospital, a friend recommended Jim go to Jefferson. “My previous doctors said I would have to start dialysis soon, but at Jefferson, they said the last thing they wanted was for me to go on dialysis.”

Dr. Pooja Singh, the Medical Director of Jefferson’s kidney transplantation and living donor kidney transplant programs, says that she will only start patients on dialysis if there are significant symptoms and their blood work reveals severe electrolyte issues, which cannot be managed on medication. In Jim’s case, Dr. Singh adjusted his medications to target acidosis — a buildup of acid in the blood –that is seen with liver failure. This gave him a chance to find a donor and delay dialysis.

Finding a living donor became Jim’s sole focus but he struggled with the guilt of asking so much from anyone, even his own family. “We had the whole family checked, even my kids,” he said. “My brother stepped up and he was a perfect match.” Jim remembers the range of emotions when he got that call from his brother—shock, joy, nervousness. “You never think that day is going to come,” Jim recalled.

The call came right before Jim thought he would need to go on dialysis. He remembers how tired he always felt, still working at least 40 hours a week at the Northeast International Airport building helicopters. “My family could see the wear on me,” he said.

Patient standing in front of Love statue in Philadelphia.

Jim’s brother, Don, lives in Cincinnati with his own family. As an engineering manager at Procter & Gamble, Don travels for weeks at a time all over the world for work. His path to becoming a living organ donor began with a telehealth video conference with Jefferson doctors. “Once I was confirmed a match, there were subsequent rounds of testing, most of which could be done locally in Cincinnati,” said Don. “It was so much easier than traveling back and forth to Philadelphia.”

“You take life for granted until something like this happens,” Jim explained. “I didn’t realize until after I had the procedure how sick I really was. Now I just enjoy life a lot better. Work was a priority before—now it is secondary. I take vacations. I spend time with my family.”

Jefferson Health has been experimenting using its JeffConnect telehealth service (video visits with physicians) with transplant patients since the program’s launch. We have accomplished six live donor transplant evaluations that were initiated through telehealth. Physicians have also performed many more live donor evaluations where the donor was deemed not suitable for donation. Dr.  Singh says telehealth provides an innovative and unique way to support living donation evaluation for out of town donors and helps cut down travel time and expenses, lost wages and fits more conveniently into potential live donors’  personal lives.

Don’s entire evaluation process was accomplished through telehealth. The first and only time Don had to travel to Philadelphia was just days before the transplant when he met with the transplant team in person for the final check off. “The day of the surgery, they had my brother and me side by side getting ready and then rolled us into the operating room,” Don said. “When I woke up they brought us back together to say a quick ‘hi’ before they took us to separate rooms. That moment stands out in my memory.”

The two brothers, close in age, grew up together, sharing a circle of friends. Don’s move to Cincinnati over 20 years ago did not allow them to spend as much time together. However, during the three-week recovery when Don was not able to travel, he stayed with his brother. “It was just the two of us most of the time so we had fun hanging out together,” Don said. “That was the silver lining.”

“You take life for granted until something like this happens,” Jim explained. “I didn’t realize until after I had the procedure how sick I really was. Now I just enjoy life a lot better. Work was a priority before—now it is secondary. I take vacations. I spend time with my family.”

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