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New kidney from lifelong friend transforms IU Kokomo vice chancellor’s life

Feb. 1, 2017

When Todd Gambill welcomes new students to IU Kokomo each semester, he tells them the friends they make in college are likely to become an integral part of the rest of their lives.

He knows this firsthand after his college roommate recently gave him a new lease on life.

Todd Gambill

Todd Gambill, IU Kokomo's Vice Chancellor, was diagnosed with a Wilm’s tumor at age 1, the most common type of kidney cancer in children. | PHOTO COURTESY OF IU KOKOMO

“What do you say to somebody who gives you the opportunity to meet your grandchildren? They don’t have a card in the Hallmark store for that,” said Gambill, vice chancellor for student affairs and enrollment management. 

His best friend from his late 1980s undergraduate days saved his life this year.

Josh Embree, his friend and roommate from Pfeiffer University, donated one of his kidneys to Gambill on March 23. 

“I never felt like I was going to die tomorrow, but I never felt like I was going to be old," he said. “For the first time, I’m really entertaining the possibility of sitting on a rocking chair on a porch with my wife in my 70s. That wasn’t something I felt I had much opportunity for before the transplant.”

Their friendship, which began when Gambill transferred to Pfeiffer in Misenheimer, North Carolina, continued well past college. And their families are close -- in fact, Gambill and his wife, Jeannie, named their daughter Embree in Josh’s honor. 

From their home in Pennsylvania, Embree and his wife, Lovell, followed Gambill's health issues, which began before they even met. Gambill was diagnosed with a Wilm’s tumor at age 1, the most common type of kidney cancer in children. Further complicating his treatment, it was discovered he had been born with one large kidney rather than two smaller ones. He had half of his kidney removed and underwent radiation and chemotherapy.

“Doctors weren’t sure if I would survive, but other than compromised renal function, I led a normal life,” he said. 

A physical just before he was married revealed his kidney function was lower than normal. Doctors monitored his condition for 25 years, watching as it declined slowly at first, and later more rapidly.

“Two years ago, we thought I was five to 10 years away from needing a transplant,” he said.

“My kidney function wore out faster at the end, and what had been a slow decline accelerated in the last 12 months. My hope all along was to avoid dialysis and go straight to a transplant.”

In 2015, Gambill was registered on the United Network for Organ Sharing, the agency responsible for ensuring donated organs are distributed fairly. He was told his wait could be three to five years, and he might have to be on dialysis before a transplant. 

According to the National Kidney Foundation, 121,678 people are waiting for lifesaving organ transplants in the United States, and 100,791 of those await kidney transplants. More than 3,000 people are added to the kidney waiting list each year, and 13 people die each day waiting. 

Knowing the wait could be lengthy, as well as knowing the greater success rate of kidneys transplanted from live donors, Lovell Embree called Gambill's transplant center and began the testing process. After she was eliminated because of surgery to remove a melanoma from her leg, Josh called and requested to be tested.

“We went through my medical history over the phone, and everything seemed to be OK, so they sent me a kit for a blood test,” he said. Throughout the 10-month process before he was approved, the Embrees never told the Gambills what they were doing, to avoid raising their hopes in case it didn’t work out.

Embree received final approval in December 2015, but the nephrologist he worked with recommended he lose 30 pounds to be fit for the surgery.

He was within a few pounds of that goal when Gambill called to tell him he was having surgery to have a port placed to begin dialysis. 

“I called the transplant center and told them let’s avoid that surgery and do the transplant,” Embree said. “I told them I was really close to goal weight, and I’d walk the last five to 10 miles to Indianapolis to lose the last few pounds if they’d schedule it. They didn’t actually make me walk, but they went ahead and scheduled the transplant.”

Shortly after, Gambill's transplant coordinator told him he had a live donor prepared to give him a kidney. He called Embree to share the good news.

“It was hard to keep the secret,” Embree said, chuckling. “He told me he had a donor, and it was all I could do not to say, ‘I know.’ We both were at the hospital for testing the day before the transplant, in the same building, and we kept peeking around corners to be sure he didn’t see me.”

On March 23, Todd, Jeannie and daughter Embree went to IU Health University Hospital for the surgery, still in the dark about his donor’s identity. 

“I spent a lot of emotional energy wondering who my donor was. I felt everything from curiosity to guilt to being so humbled knowing someone was making this incredible sacrifice,” Gambill said. “Literally as we were walking into the hospital, the last thing I said was, ‘The logistics don’t make sense, but my heart tells me it’s Josh.' Two minutes later, we round the corner, and it’s Josh and Lovell.”

Once he saw his old friend, he didn’t feel nervous about the surgery.

“Probably the only time I felt emotions on that level was meeting my kids for the first time. It was an emotional meeting,” he said. “I was anxious, nervous and scared, until I saw Josh and Lovell.”

Embree went home three days after the surgery, recovered for two weeks at home and returned to work. Gambill spent five days in the hospital and returned to campus six weeks later. Once he recovered, he was amazed by how much better he felt.

Gambill posing with Embree

Gambill, left, and Embree have been friends since meeting while they were both students at Pfeiffer University. | PHOTO COURTESY OF IU KOKOMO

“With something like kidney disease, it happens so gradually, you don’t realize how crummy you feel,” he said. “In hindsight, I realized I hadn’t felt well for a long time. I’m able to run and exercise in a way I haven’t in years.” 

He feels a profound sense of gratitude, and of responsibility to take care of himself and the donated kidney. The average lifespan for a donated kidney is 15 to 20 years, and he plans to exceed that, “because you don’t have another one you could pony up, right, Josh?”

The pair celebrated renewed health with a two and a half day hiking and camping trip in the Monongahela Forest in West Virginia with Embree's brother and another college friend.

“Neither of us could have done this before, with my gout, and without Josh’s weight loss to be my donor,” Gambill said. “There are a lot of healthy people who could not have done it.”

He was humbled by the support his family received before and after the transplant. More than 10 people requested information about testing to be possible donors, and many brought meals to them each day for weeks after the surgery.

Gambill realizes he is one of the lucky ones, and he urges people to register as organ donors.

“There are people who die every day waiting for transplants, while I was fortunate and blessed to have my best friend donate a kidney to me,” he said. “There are a lot of other people who don’t have those relationships with a kidney match, and many of them die because there aren’t enough people willing to make that kind of commitment upon their death, or upon a loved one’s death.” 

For more information about organ donation, or to register as a donor, go to donatelifeindiana.org.

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