Grant Belk remembers the day last winter when he looked at his father-in-law and “saw something” in his eyes that convinced him that he needed to whatever he could to help him.
Belk’s father-in-law, Dwayne Kidd, had been receiving dialysis for his failing kidneys for four years by that time and the treatments were getting more frequent and less effective over time. And though he was on the national kidney registry through Emory Hospital, no match had been found.
“I looked at him and despite how he tried to act in front of us, I could see how scared he was that he was going to die,” Belk said. He added that Kidd had told family members when he first knew he needed a kidney that he wouldn’t take a kidney from any of his family because he didn’t want them to have to go through that for him. And though several had since started the process, none had worked out.
“I knew we weren’t ‘blood kin’ and with no disrespect to my father, Dwayne has always been more a father figure to me and I knew in that moment that I couldn’t go any longer not knowing if I might be the one that could give him what he needed,” Belk said.
Belk and Kidd’s daughter, Dawn, have been married for 22 years, and have three children, and Belk said he has been “part of the family” for several years before that.
“I told Dawn I was going to start the process and she was OK with it,” Belk remembered.
He said the only thing she ever asked him was if he was sure he wanted to do this.
“She asked me that several times and my answer was always the same – that I was sure – I never had a second thought about it,” he said.
He said the process itself is rigorous — lots of blood and other tests and visits to Emory. He remembers getting the call a few weeks later that he was a “direct match,” meaning that he was an excellent donor candidate for Kidd.
“I was so happy,” he said. He made the call to Kidd to give him the news.
Belk said even then, his father-in-law didn’t want to be an inconvenience.
“He told me to take my time and pick a convenient time for surgery,” Belk remembers.
By that time, COVID-19 was changing how things were done and there was a temporary delay in all but the most urgent surgeries.
Belk said that put them off for a bit, but they were finally able to set a date – Thursday, Oct. 8 – at Emory in Atlanta.
No one was allowed to be there with them, due to COVID, so Belk said he and Kidd drove to Atlanta the night before surgery. Kidd said they stayed in the Mason Guest House, an older home owned by Emory set up as a hotel for patients and their families.
Belk said after they arrived at the hotel, he saw a long post about the upcoming surgery that Dawn had written on her Facebook page. He said it meant so much to him and he couldn’t believe the responses, well wishes and prayers that started to come in.
“I had so many folks texting me and posting on our (Facebook) pages, letting us know they were thinking of and praying for Dwayne and for me; it just meant so much,” he said.
Mrs. Belk said the evening she and her mom said goodbye to her husband and father as they left for the hospital was very emotional indeed.
“To say goodbye to them was hard and the fact that we couldn’t be there during the surgery because of COVID, was scary and nerve-wracking,” she said. “We really had to rely on our faith that we had all been brought to this moment for a reason. Looking at my dad, especially I remember being very emotional, wondering if he would be OK and if I would see him again.”
She said the relationship between her husband and her father has always been close.
“Grant started working in my dad’s chicken houses when we were seniors in high school, before he and I started dating,” she said. “They have always been like father and son with each other. And Grant and I went to school together, so we grew up together.”
On the morning of the surgery, the two men got up and made the short drive to the hospital together, arriving in the surgical unit about 6:30 a.m.
Kidd said he and Belk once prepped for surgery, were able to wait together until they came and rolled his son-in-law back first.
“I remember looking at him before they took him back and telling him that words just couldn’t express how grateful I was for what he was doing for me,” Kidd said. “He was giving me my life back.”
Kidd said he has always thought of Belk as a son and that he, his son Zach and Belk have often gone on hunting trips and done other father/son things together.
“He’s just like my own,” Kidd said. “And I can’t say he’s an in-law anymore, we’re blood because I have a part of him inside me.”
He said he never thought when he welcomed his son-in-law into the family those many years ago that he was also welcoming the person who would one day give him a whole new life.
The day of surgery, Mrs. Belk went to her mom’s house so they could be together while they waited for news. “Emory was so good to stay in contact with us,” she said. “They called me when Grant’s surgery started and they called my mom a short time later when surgery began on my dad and they continued to call every one-and-a-half to two hours during surgery to keep us updated.”
But Mrs. Belk said it was still a very long day.
“We were on pins and needles and if for some reason the nurses were late calling, well it was tough,” she remembers. Mr. Belk’s surgery lasted about five hours and her dad’s an hour or so longer.
“That’s a long time, particularly when you’re in Danielsville and they’re at a hospital in Atlanta,” she said.
She was able to speak to Grant in the recovery room and her mom was able to speak to her dad during his recovery.
“It felt a lot better after we talked to them,” she remembers.
Surgery went well for both of them. Belk said, he was able to leave on Saturday and Kidd a couple of days later. Their family and friends, of course, were elated.
Kidd, 67, said he began to have problems with his kidneys following a heart attack in 2013.
“The dye that they used during a heart procedure caused my kidney function to go down,” he said, adding that doctors kept him in the hospital for an extra week to wait for his kidney function to improve.
Shortly after that, Kidd began receiving peritoneal dialysis at home.
“That worked for a couple of years but then I had to go hemodialysis and that has to be done in an infusion center,” he said. That meant three or four trips a week to a facility where he had to be hooked up to a machine for four hours at a time.
“It was exhausting,” Kidd said of the experience. “It really takes the energy out of you.”
On top of that, he and wife, Gwen, both retired, were tied down to the routine. There were no breaks, no vacations, no change in the routine.
Kidd does remember one weekend early on when a cousin came and loaded up his peritoneal dialysis machine and all his equipment into his pickup truck so he and Gwen could join he and his wife for a long weekend in the mountains.
“That was a lot of trouble for him to go to and it’s the last vacation we’ve had,” Kidd said.
Kidd said Gwen has hung in there with him through all of this.
“We’ve been married 44 years and she’s been right there and it’s been tough on her,” he said. “I hope we can relax a little now and enjoy some of our time together.”
Kidd and Belk both emphasize that besides telling their family’s story, they hope that it will encourage others to become an organ donor.
“It is not a hard surgery to get over and I feel no different than I did before,” Belk said. “I hope more people will consider becoming a living donor.”
Belk’s father-in-law agrees.
“I don’t have the words to express what this has meant to me,” he said. “I have my life back. I haven’t had to go back to dialysis since the surgery. My health is coming back. Gwen and I hope that when the pandemic is over that we’ll finally be able to travel and enjoy our retirement, this has just meant the world to me,” Kidd said. “I really hope others will consider doing this for someone.”
Kidd also says he can’t say enough good things about the professionalism and care he has received from the Emory Transplant Center’s team before and after surgery.
“They are top notch,” Kidd said.
“Although this story is about our family’s experience, our ultimate hope is that it will encourage others to explore the possibility of becoming a living donor for someone,” Mrs. Belk said. “Until you’re touched by something like this you just don’t realize what that can mean for someone else. And to others struggling with something similar right now, please don’t lose hope, things can work out.”
Needless to say, though the holiday season may not be “normal” for the family due to the pandemic, it will be a time of thankfulness and joy nevertheless.
EMORY TRANSPLANT CENTER
Emory Transplant Center has a well-established living donor kidney transplant program, according to their website. To date, they have performed more than 1,300 living donor kidney transplants. “We encourage living donation because of the excellent outcomes and the shorter wait times for patients to receive a kidney,” the website states.
Emory Transplant Center also offers a paired exchange program to donor and recipient pairs who do not match. They work with the National Kidney Registry to locate matching kidneys and exchange with other recipients who have donors who do not match with them.
If you would like to become a living kidney donor, the first step in the process is to register as a potential kidney donor. To see if you qualify as a donor go to: https://emory.donorscreen.org
For more information about the program, call the Emory Transplant Center at 1-855-366-7989 or 1-404-712-4981.