MOORESVILLE, N.C. (WBTV) – John Burgess had hurting ribs. The pain lasted for days and wasn’t going away.
The Mooresville teen told his mom. His parents took him to a FastMed.
“They told me it was bronchitis,” John said. “But a week later I was out of medicines and still throwing up. My heart felt like it was galloping. So I was sent to the Emergency Room at Lake Norman Hospital. They Mercy-flighted me to Levine Children’s Hospital.”
Days later he found out both his kidneys were attacked by a random virus. He was 16 years old.
“I had my eyes set on a military career,” John said when we met him at Victory Lanes in Mooresville, a place John said he likes to bowl. “Suddenly, I was on dialysis.”
For two years John’s parents, Krista and Rich Burgess, watched him get worse. They knew he needed a kidney but no donor was appearing and no one in the family was a match. They tried to spread the word – even getting bumper stickers made for cars – but how do you ask people to give your son an organ?
“We were in a state of shock,” Rich Burgess says. “He’d been perfectly healthy his whole life and this illness came out of nowhere. We kept seeing his health drop rapidly and felt relatively helpless.”
Krista Burgess cut her husband off. “We definitely felt helpless,” she said. “That’s when John’s school nurse took over.”
Susan Johnson works in the Iredell-Statesville School System. She said John was one of her most positive students, even when he’d walk in her nurse’s office stumbling and in pain.
“He was failing fast,” she said. “Got to a point where he couldn’t tie his shoes or use the keys on a computer. But he was always a very determined, young man. Very positive. A kid where the glass was half full. He was sure he was going to get a kidney. Very upbeat.”
She knew she wanted to help but not being a match herself – similar to his parents – she wasn’t sure exactly what.
The answer came to her in the middle of the night.
“An idea popped into my head,” she said. “The only way to find a kidney is to get the word out. And to get the word out to thousands of people.”
With family permission, Susan wrote a compelling email to all of South Iredell High School. The athletic director forwarded it to his church. That church pastor sent it to a network of ministers.
Meantime, the school guidance counselor sent Susan’s email to me. I wrote about John as one of our #MollysKids.
And that’s how it went. Susan’s original email kept getting forwarded… Facebook posts kept getting shared… and suddenly, Carolinas Medical Center got a call from a man saying he wanted to donate his kidney. He was 46 years old, living out-of-state, a father of four and most importantly, the proper blood type for John. He wanted to remain anonymous but said he’d read about John online.
The hospital quickly turned around and notified John’s parents.
“They couldn’t reveal who it was,” Krista said. “We just thought it was a miracle.”
The donor flew into Charlotte. The transplant surgery was August 3rd, 2016.
“It was amazing,” Rich Burgess says. “The kidney started working on the operating table.”
Five days after their surgeries, the donor revealed himself to John, who was now 18 years old. His name was Todd Deaver. He was a pastor who lived in Louisiana.
We met up with Todd when he returned to Charlotte for his six-month check-up. He told us he was a traveling pastor who had first read about John from an email sent from a church. He’d lived in Pennsylvania when he read the email, but soon after moved to Louisiana. After the check-up, he was planning on moving to Michigan. His wife and four kids were already there.
“We’re on the move a lot,” Todd said with a calm laugh. “It’s just our lifestyle.”
Todd said this was his first major surgery.
When it came to the main question – who gives a kidney to a total stranger they read about online – Todd just shrugged kindly.
“It was something I felt the Lord was leading me to do,” he said. “I actually got pre-tested to be a living donor in 2013, even though at the time I didn’t know anyone who needed a transplant. Then when I heard about John’s situation, I figured, ‘I’m ready to go. He’s in dire need. Let’s go.’”
Angels come in all shapes and sizes. Todd Deaver says he doesn’t consider himself one.
“This was something I needed to do,” he said. “I think that God, through circumstances and prompting, communicates certain things and specific assignments he wants us to do. For me, this was one of them.”
He says he didn’t feel any hesitation, but his wife did. Todd and Janel Deaver have four children – a 15, 10, 5 and 3-year-old.
“I talked with my wife before I did the surgery,” he said. “I said, ‘Lord if you want me to donate to John you have to convince Janel’.”
He said she ultimately got on board by saying, “I don’t want you to give up a kidney, but if he were my child I would want someone to donate.”
John says Todd is his hero. Actual, real-life lifesaver.
“Six months later, I feel a hundred times better,” John said. “I don’t know how to really thank him.”
“It has been an honor to help him,” Todd said in return. “I hope he is able to live a normal and perfectly healthy life.”
WBTV talked with the CMC doctor who performed the surgeries. Dr. Kent Kercher says the case was unusual in his mind for one main reason.
“Persistence,” Dr. Kercher said. “It was very clear Todd wanted to do this. From my standpoint, it’s really important a patient understands what they’re getting into. Live kidney donors are the one group I operate on who don’t NEED an operation. I am not making them better with this operation. It’s important for a live kidney donor to understand what they’re signing off on. Todd understood that fully.”
About 1,000 organ transplants were done in the North Carolina last year, says Debbie Gibbs, spokesperson for LifeShare Of The Carolinas. LifeShare was involved in 304 of those transplants.
“What we want people to think about is that if it was your child that needed a transplant, what would you want someone else to say?” Debbie said. “We hope that when people are thinking about IF donation is the right way to go, they will think about that it’s someone’s child who could be involved. It’s someone’s child who could need the transplant to live.”
According to LifeShare, 21 people die every day because they don’t get the organ they need.
“If we could just get more people to be donors, we could save more lives,” Gibbs said.
“I’m walking proof of that!” says John. “Six months ago I was almost in a wheelchair so weak I couldn’t walk. Now I feel great!”