ROCHESTER HILLS, Mich. - Karen Bryce had endured kidney transplant surgery once, and frankly, that was enough for her.
Her body ached as if she’d been mowed down by a truck, but pain was a small price to pay for saving her daddy’s life. Though he survived only a short time, Bryce never regretted being a donor — not even when she became seriously ill several years later and was stunned to learn why:
Her remaining kidney was failing. Now SHE needed to be rescued.
Her sister stepped up, but Bryce said: No way. By then, she’d learned her kidney disease was hereditary. She wasn’t about to let a family member end up like her.
Bryce decided she’d get by on dialysis. But the three-times-a-week treatment left her too tired to work. Her skin turned gray, her weight dropped precipitously and her two teenage daughters (she’s a single mother) feared she’d die.
That’s when she agreed to a transplant.
Her kidney came courtesy of a man named Jim. He was in his late 50s — that was all she knew at first. It was hard to grasp that someone she’d never met was making this huge sacrifice.
“I did it for someone I loved and had no reservation,” she says, “but to do it for a total stranger was beyond my comprehension. I just felt this person had to be an angel.”
Her angel turned out to be more.
Jim Falsey, she discovered, was a Roman Catholic priest, a skydiver and pilot who had navigated the wilds of Alaska, a spitfire — just like her daddy.
He also happened to be part of an extraordinarily generous family: They jokingly call themselves “the one kidney club.”
A family tradition
Five members have donated kidneys. And a sixth now waits in the wings.
There’s Tom Falsey, the unofficial president, a soft-spoken, silver-haired Kansas engineer who initially wanted to help a desperately ill nephew. When that didn’t work out, he decided to find someone else who could use a healthy kidney.
A stranger was just fine with him — in this case, an affable, freckle-faced Omaha teen who had survived cancer as a child.
There’s Joyce Falsey, Tom’s wife, who decided she, too, had something she could live without. She also donated to a stranger — a basketball-playing woman diagnosed with lupus who was buoyed by the prayers of her entire church congregation.
Then there’s Father Jim, the parachuting preacher who tends to his flock of 235 families in the tiny town of Au Gres. He gave a piece of himself to Bryce, whose sacrifice to her own dad is permanently remembered with a 17-inch scar around her midsection. (She also had a rib removed for the surgery.)
While there are thousands of living kidney donors each year, almost all give to family, friends or acquaintances. The three Falseys are among the tiny fraction — 283 of 68,577 — who have donated anonymously, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing.
“I don’t know what to think of this family,” Bryce says with a laugh. “I don’t know if they’re a gift from God or if they’re out of their minds.”
The Falseys are just one branch of the kidney-giving clan.
Joyce’s brother, Rich Schurman, a Nebraska corn and soybean farmer, has completed screening and testing to be an anonymous donor. He delayed plans while his wife, Joan, recovered from ovarian cancer, but now, she says, “he’s going to sneak it in this fall.”
Schurman first tried to be a donor 15 years ago to his son, Aaron, who was diagnosed with kidney disease as a teen. But his blood type was not compatible.
Schurman says he never gave up the idea of donating, knowing there are others just like his son.
But it was Joan who started the family tradition.
She gave their son, Aaron, a kidney in 1990 in a grueling operation: Doctors sliced through her muscles, leaving her unable to lift her new grandson or ride a tractor through the bumpy fields for months.
But every day of discomfort was worth it.
“I remember laughing — it was just wonderful to see him up and so pink,” she says, recalling those first moments after surgery.
'You ... can't not do anything' Aaron’s kidney worked for eight years, but then the same disease started eating at his transplanted kidney.
“I didn’t want to tell my mom,” he says. “I figured she’d be crushed.”
Not feeling sick and dreading more dialysis, he avoided the doctor.
By the time he resumed treatment two years later, his kidney was barely working. He eventually lost about 40 pounds, his face was sunken and clay-colored. He developed nerve damage in his legs from dialysis, and though he was a college student in his 20s, he shuffled like an 85-year-old man.
Still, when Aaron’s older sister, Michelle Desler, offered her kidney, he was adamant.
“I’m not taking any more from this family,” he insisted.
Michelle had her blood tested without telling him. She worried Aaron couldn’t survive long. More than 3,800 people died waiting for a kidney last year, according to the organ network.
When his uncle, Tom Falsey, saw Aaron’s decline, he volunteered. “You can’t watch something like that and not do anything,” he says.
Initially, Falsey turned out to be a good match. He took a leave from his job, packed his bags, then 18 hours before surgery, final tests showed the risk of rejection would be too high. The operation was off.
“I was devastated,” Falsey says. But the seed had been planted.
“We knew Aaron had come close to dying,” he says. “We knew there were other people out there dying, too.”
Meanwhile, Michelle learned she was a match for Aaron. “Are you going to take me up on my offer?” she asked her brother. “He knew that he was running out of time,” she says.
He agreed. By then, he’d been on a waiting list for nearly three years.
But Tom Falsey wasn’t done. He told The Nebraska Medical Center he wanted to be an anonymous donor. It was an unusually generous offer, but the hospital didn’t have that kind of program — not yet.
Falsey, now 50, called repeatedly. “I’m not getting any younger,” he’d joke. “I’m going to donate this kidney if you take it or not.”
His pestering paid off. The hospital started an anonymous donor program, aware the dynamics are different when strangers are involved.
“You want to make sure this is a balanced person and is not doing this out of a need for attention, so if things go well, great, but if things don’t go well, they wouldn’t themselves have a problem,” says Dr. Lucy Wrenshall, a transplant surgeon at the center who performed two Falsey operations.
Falsey completed two psychological evaluations before he was approved.
'I feel like a new man'
As doctors began surgery, a nearby operating room held Jordan Shaw, a high school student and a born optimist, an indispensable trait for a kid stricken with cancer at age 2.
“The radiation had really fried my kidneys and my whole insides,” he explains. By age 15, Jordan was on a transplant list, but he wasn’t wringing his hands.
“I’ve always had kind of a fearless attitude — that what happens, happens,” he says with a hint of pride.
After the transplant, Jordan was eager to meet his donor to “show him it wasn’t a bad choice.”
The two at first exchanged notes. (The hospital requires a three-month wait until either side can contact the other.)
“I feel like a new man,” wrote Jordan. He referred to his new organ as “your kidney.”
No, Falsey replied, it’s all yours and by the way, “your kidney has been in 49 of the 50 states.”
Falsey assured Jordan the transplant had gone smoothly. Unlike years earlier, most kidney transplants are now done with laparoscopic surgery, which is far less invasive and requires only small incisions. Recovery is much quicker.
The two met in late 2003 and Jordan, now 18, says he’s forever grateful.
“You can’t really say thank you just once,” Jordan says.
A few months after Falsey’s donation, his older brother, Jim, called. He was ready to be a donor.
The decision surprised Tom (a skydiver, too) but made perfect sense to Jim.
He has always charted his own path, whether it’s jumping from planes for fun, piloting his Cessna 172 to visit parishioners in remote corners of Alaska, kayaking in the wilderness — or undergoing life-changing surgery.
“I preach stewardship — that everything we have is not our own but the Lord’s gift,” he says. “Our talents, our body should be used for the good of everybody else. Granted, it’s not the normal way .... but if it works, it works. ... It served me well for 59 years. Now it’s somebody else’s responsibility.”
That somebody would be Karen Bryce, who met the stranger who saved her life last year.
Bryce, 43, gleefully rattles off small things she can do now that were once impossible: watch her daughter’s soccer games, take out-of-town trips, even eat bacon occasionally.
There are silver linings even in unlikely places.
“I gained weight on steroids,” she says. “When people would say, ’How are you doing? I’d say ’fat and sassy.’ I couldn’t say that when I was on dialysis.”
A few months after Tom’s surgery, Joyce, now 60, joined the one kidney club. “Maybe it’s the mom thing,” she says. “You want to help.”
Her kidney went to Regina McDonald, a 39-year-old factory worker who had been on dialysis six years. “I saw people who died,” she says. “I saw people who gave up. Some people got tired of being sick. They didn’t want to fight anymore.”
Not her. “I just continued to pray,” she says.
For the recipients, the transplant is a second chance at life.
But they all keep a close watch on their health, with anti-rejection medicines and checkups.
Later this month, Bryce will visit Jim Falsey; the two will be interviewed for a documentary. When they get together, she says, it’s like a family reunion. They barely talk about the transplant.
But that doesn’t mean she ever forgets how — or why — they met.
“I think of Jim every single day of my life,” she says. “I know he’s the reason I’m alive and kicking.”