Auburn man accepts gift of new kidney and runs with it

Life is a struggle, made more acute for a fragile man with two failing kidneys.

Life is a struggle, made more acute for a fragile man with two failing kidneys.

Auburn’s Daniel May was such a man five years ago, dependent on dialysis and faced with an uncertain future.

But his prospects for a healthier life began to change dramatically with the support of a well-coordinated national donation network.

Connections were made, prayers answered and May eventually became the recipient of a donated kidney from someone who lived, worked and tragically passed away on the other side of the continent.

“It’s hard to comprehend that someone died so I could see my grandson five more years and be married to my wife five more years,” an introspective May said while glancing at the sun-splashed 400-meter track at Auburn Memorial Stadium, where he often trains as a runner. “This is the fifth-year anniversary of my transplant. I would like to have another 15 or 20 years.

“To me, every day is a gift.”

May, 57, is forever grateful to David Lauer, someone he was unfamiliar with until July 12, when Lauer’s daughter and her family met May for the first time at the National Kidney Foundation’s U.S. Transplant Games in Pittsburgh.

It was Lauer who died unexpectedly from a brain tumor in a Buffalo, N.Y., hospital at age 50. It was Lauer whose name was placed on a donor’s list. It was Lauer who gave a little of himself to help others.

Angel Harpham, who said making the decision to donate her father’s organs was a tough one, told The Buffalo News, “I knew that my father would do anything for anybody, so I decided to do it.”

Some of Lauer’s other organs wound up helping many in need. One kidney was given to a woman in western New York. Part of his liver was donated to a New York City man. A cornea went to a patient in Syria, while the other went to a 90-year-old Buffalo woman.

And in August 2003, May received Lauer’s other kidney.

Even to this day such an ultimate gift, life through an organ donation, is difficult for May to grasp.

“How can you say thank you?” he said, pausing to collect his thoughts. “How can you thank them enough for what they did?”

May wanted to say thank you in person. He always wanted to meet the donor’s family, but it was a process that took considerable time.

He wrote Harpham twice, most recently in June 2006, but she didn’t respond – until recently.

Such correspondence is handled carefully and anonymously between donor and recipient families through foundation liaisons. It is up to the donor’s family if they wish to communicate openly with the recipient.

Angel’s voice heard

Given that the U.S. Transplant Games were nearby, Harpham and her family from Niagara Falls, N.Y., were willing to meet the Mays. The financially-challenged Harphams made the trip when Team Buffalo, a group of transplant recipient athletes, and the National Kidney Foundation helped cover their expenses.

In one highly anticipated and emotional moment, the families met after a ceremony honoring donor families at the Pittsburgh games. Harpham, 34, was joined by her fiancé, two children and two cousins. May was accompanied by his wife, Jonna, two daughters and 11-year-old grandson.

“Tears flowed, there were hugs,” Jonna said. “It was wonderful to feel and see an expression of love between Angel, her family and Daniel.”

May said it was an incredible experience, a whirlwind of many emotions.

“It’s a joy’s joy,” he said.

The event brought a beginning and closure. The families will stay in touch. May intends to have duplicates of Lauer’s photo made to honor him.

More than anything, the moment gave the May family, a tight-knit and active bunch, the opportunity to express their gratitude.

“If you have a transplant, it gives you your life back,” Jonna said. “It changes your life … you are able to do things you were unable to do because of dialysis.”

May was dependent on dialysis for two years. The sessions were long, often lasting seven hours, and frequent, typically requiring three days a week. Such a situation limited May’s ability to travel long distances or visit family.

Getting an assist

But May’s plight changed once he and his family turned to the United Network for Organ Sharing – a non-profit, scientific and educational organization that administers the nation’s only Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. Through the OPTN, UNOS collects and manages data about transplants occurring in the U.S., in addition to facilitating the organ matching and placement process using data and the UNOS Organ Center.

In time, May found a match.

While the transplant went well, May has had to battle its effects. Last winter, for instance, he lost 50 pounds as a result of toxicity buildup from the immuno-supplement drugs in his system. Doctors since have changed medications to stabilize May, who takes 35 pills daily to maintain his health.

Today, the 144-pound May is slowly regaining his strength and stamina.

At the Pittsburgh games, he managed to compete in the 400-meter dash and long jump. Team Northwest, a group of 29 area transplant recipient athletes, brought home 26 medals.

Between the Transplant Games every two years, Team Northwest participates in runs, walks, bicycle events and other activities to raise awareness of transplantation and organ donation.

In Auburn, his home for 15 years, May remains a big part of his family, a father of seven, and continues his teaching and seminary work for his Mormon church.

The ordeal has changed the Mays in many ways. They all are believers in the donor system and encourage others to participate.

For May, it has given him a new outlook on life, so he can share more of himself with others.

Of his 16 grandchildren, five were born after his transplant.

“When people mention quality of life, I just grin,” May said. “You just live with it … and to me, every day is a blessing.

“I thought I knew what life meant,” he added, “and now I get to read a new chapter.”

Mark Klaas can be reached at 253-833-0218, ext. 5050, or