A Kidney Donor's Story

After a successful career on Wall Street, he wanted to do something that couldn't be measured in dollars

10 Feb 2020 | 02:23

When John Campbell decided to retire four year ago, he started to take stock of his life. He grew up in Sunnyside, Queens and had a tough upbringing. He had to learn how to take care of himself. “I’ve kind of been on my own from the very beginning. I didn’t really have a close family relationship with anybody,” said Campbell, who turned 71 on Jan. 1 of this year. “I just needed to get out of there.”

So he did well in school, eventually earning an MBA from the Wharton School and finding success on Wall Street. And now, at the end of his career, he was looking to make an impact outside of the financial world. He wanted to do something you couldn’t put a price tag on.

“I read a paper by Alvin Roth, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics,” said Campbell. “And he came up with this notion of: how do you price a good that you can't charge for?”

One example Roth laid out in his paper: becoming a living kidney donor. “It made sense to me,” said Campbell. “I thought it was a pretty neat idea.”

A Gift for a Stranger

The idea stayed with him and finally, last September, he went to the Langone Center at NYU to see if he qualified to become a living donor.

Typically, people in need of a kidney receive the organ from a family member or loved one. In Campbell’s case, he was volunteering his kidney to whoever in the general public needed it.

The screening process was extensive. He met with a nephrologist and a surgeon. They conducted sonograms, X-rays and many, many blood tests. “It was probably close to two full days in the hospital, taking every imaginable test,” Campbell said. “They were probably also assessing me psychologically, to make sure you're doing this for the right reasons.”

Campbell’s kidney was healthy; and by December, doctors found a compatible recipient. “I was quite fortunate that my kidney function was really, really good for a guy my age,” he said.

Campbell didn’t broadcast his decision to many of his friends. For one, he’s not much of an attention seeker. And, two, he figured people might find him wanting to donate a kidney to a stranger to be a bit odd, and he didn’t want to be talked out of it.

“I thought: ‘If it’s something I want to do, I’ll just do it and tell everybody afterwards,’” said Campbell.

Success in the OR, and After

He arrived at the hospital on Dec. 11 at 5 a.m., calm and ready for the procedure. He listened to the explanations from the doctors about how the day would go, and was wheeled into surgery. The doctor asked him what music he wanted to listen to during the procedure, which he thought was a pretty funny question to ask someone who — hopefully — would be asleep for the surgery.

“I told him to listen to what he wanted to listen to,” said Campbell. “He goes, ‘No, no, no.’ So I asked for the Irish group, The Cranberries.” The anesthesiologist put him under and he didn’t wake up until 6 p.m. The surgery was successful, for himself and the recipient.

Going into the surgery, Campbell had wanted to donate the kidney anonymously. Again, he didn’t want a lot of attention. But when the recipient told the hospital that he would like to meet the donor, Campbell decided to do it.

“This is the God's honest truth, and I'm being very honest here, I was more nervous the night before I met the recipient than I going to the hospital for the surgery,” said Campbell.

When he walked into the hospital on Jan. 16, just a few weeks after the surgery, he and the recipient were a bit shocked when they saw one another.

“When he walked into the conference room, we looked at each other and started laughing,” said Martin Cernese, the recipient of Campbell’s kidney.

During their respective recoveries in the hospital, Campbell and Cernese would take walks around the floor of the hospital. They passed by one another, and would say hello, but nothing more. The more they saw of one another, the more each of them wondered, “Could that be him?”

'Bawling Like a Baby'

Cernese, 77, had been on dialysis and waiting for a donor match for two years after his kidneys had stopped functioning. The routine of dialysis had basically taken over his life, and his life was already pretty full.

For 25 years he had worked as the director of operations for an airline communications company. As a parent, he had served as president of his children’s school board on Long Island and was active in Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Since retiring in 2006, he’s enjoyed reading and going for walks. Now, with “John’s Kidney,” as Cernese says, he is getting that life back.

“I went up to him and shook his hand and I said, ‘John, thank you is so inadequate, I don't know what else to say,’” he recalled. Campbell thanked him in return, which took Cernese by surprise.

“What do you mean?” Cernese remembered asking him. “And he explained his situation and he wanted to leave something behind and I started bawling like a baby. I couldn’t control it after that.” The meeting was an overwhelming experience, Campbell said. The two shared their contact information and have been trading emails since.

After meeting Cernese, Campbell said he’s glad to have done something in his life that was really meaningful in the moment. He’s also hoping to become an advocate for living donors, and explain his experience so that others in need might benefit.

“People might think this is a dramatic thing to do, but it’s not that difficult,” Campbell said. “The demand for kidneys is just staggering. I feel so blessed that I could do it.”

“The demand for kidneys is just staggering. I feel so blessed that I could do it.”