BLACKDUCK, Minn. — In his role as golf coach at Blackduck High School 20 years ago, Don Houseman gave Trent Johnson tips on how to improve his game. Last year, Don gave Trent a kidney.
On Jan. 19, 2020 Johnson and Houseman checked into the Sanford Medical Center in Fargo where, a day later, Don would donate one of his kidneys to Trent. But of course, the story doesn’t begin or end there.
Autosomal Dominant Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD) is a fairly common genetic disorder affecting more than half a million people in the United States alone. It is inherited from one parent. Scientists say that when a person has this disease it is probable that 50% of their children will inherit it and there is nothing they can do that will prevent it.
In Gail (Bourquin) Johnson’s family, her father passed the gene to four of his seven children. Gail then passed that gene to her son Trent. The defective gene causes multiple cysts to form in the kidneys. The cysts increase in size and number over time, and people begin to notice the changes due to very high blood pressure. Over time, the cysts take over the function of the kidneys, causing many problems that lead to dialysis, transplant or death.
Gail’s grandmother, father, and others in their family had passed away early in their lives. Her father, who was on dialysis, died at 60. Of his four children who inherited the disease, three have received transplants. Gail found out in her 30s that she had polycystic kidney disease and was grateful to receive a kidney from her sister-in-law in 2002. Her brother Greg also received a kidney from an in-law. Gail’s brother Glenn was able to donate a kidney to his younger brother Ken, and all of them are doing well and leading normal lives.
Gail and her husband Mark knew that their son had inherited PKD as early as 2000, when Trent was just a junior in high school and his blood pressure was very high. His doctors ordered an ultrasound on his kidneys because of the family history and it showed that he had inherited the disease from his mother.
He was on many blood pressure medications, and finally in 2019, his nephrologist said it was time to put him on the list for a deceased person’s kidney. But these lists have thousands of people waiting for a deceased person’s kidney, most of them for five or more years, and many go on dialysis or die waiting for a transplant that could have saved them.
“Many people did step up and offer to donate,” Gail said. “The only way we can even know that they offered was that they told us themselves, because the two departments for donors and recipients do not share any information due to very strict guidelines. There are so many components that need to match, and just because you are a family member doesn’t mean that you will be a match. Sometimes a stranger is the better match.”
Mark wanted to be his son’s donor, but because of a heart condition he was not considered a viable candidate.
Soon after Mark was told he could not be a donor, he was sitting with Houseman at a table at the Blackduck Golf Club.
“I told Don that Trent needed a transplant,” Mark said. “Don and I have been friends since we both started teaching and coaching at Blackduck, and we often shared those difficult ups and downs of life with each other. Before our conversation was over he asked me, ‘How can I be a donor? What steps do I have to take?’ I gave him the social worker’s card with the number at Sanford in Fargo. Don took it from there and he turned out to be the match.”
Houseman said, “As soon as Mark told me that Trent needed a kidney and they couldn’t find a donor, I said, ‘Give me the paperwork.’ Mark kind of blew me off; he thought I was just saying that and didn’t really mean it. But I talked to my family and everyone agreed that it was the right thing to do. So I called Mark again and said, ‘Let’s do this.’”
There were still months to go, and Trent became so weak and tired that he would fall asleep right after work — but he worked at his job right up until the day that he and Houseman reported to Sanford in Fargo.
“We spent a month in Fargo,” Mark said, “with time in the hospital, appointments, blood work, and meeting with the transplant team. Don and I shared in both his and Trent’s visits with the transplant team. Now here we are, one year out, and both of them are doing well.”
Trent said that he has always respected Don and looked up to him as a teacher and coach, but now — with the donation of a kidney — Don has given Trent a very special gift that he will always be extremely grateful for.