When Dr. Sam “Papa” Romeo hired Gordon Mitchell to be the maintenance director at Tower Health and Wellness Center in Turlock, he thought he was hiring the right person for the job. As it turns out he hired someone who would save his life seven years later and become a life-long friend.
“There’s something bigger than all of us that gives us the energy and the ability to make tough decisions for the benefit of each other — for the love of each other,” Romeo said.
Over the years that they worked together, the doctor and the maintenance director found they had a lot in common, from how they liked to spend their free time — fishing and being outdoors — to the things they valued in life — faith, family and hard-work. But it was when Romeo’s health began to take a dramatic decline that they saw how strong their bond was to their friendship.
Romeo had been dealing with kidney failure for quite some time and had tried to get on the registry for a transplant, but was denied because of his age, which at the time was 80 years old.
“Kidney failure is a progressive disease,” Romeo said. “I’ve been knowing this for probably five years. You get to a point where your lab tests are telling you that you’ve got 50%, 40% of residual function. Then further along you get down to 15% or 10% and you know there’s not much left.”
He was preparing to start dialysis, which he knew, for him was a way to have more time, but would not stop the progression of the disease.
“You get to a point where it’s almost like being in hospice,” Romeo said. “You know your time is limited, you know what’s going on and that there’s an end in sight. The immediate course is dialysis. But again, that’s just prolonging the inevitable.”
The idea of a direct donation had been discussed, but Romeo said he didn’t really know how to even broach that idea.
“Why would anybody at any age, under any circumstance with any background be willing to put their own life at risk and donate a vital organ to support the longevity of an 80-plus year-old man?” Romeo asked.
That’s when Mitchell came forward with an offer to donate one of his kidneys if he was a match.
“When I started here with Papa, he comes in, he’s got the bounce, he’s got the smile, he’s got the ‘how’s everybody this morning,” Mitchell said. “Probably about a year before all this is going on, I just could tell something was going on. When we did find out, I told my wife about it and, God love my wife, she goes ‘well, what are you going to do?’ Well, I’m going to see if I’m a match.”
“That’s one thing about all the people around us,” Mitchell said. “It was never anything but love and support.”
What followed was a battery of tests for both men and when they thought they had done them all, there were new ones awaiting.
“There are so many prerequisites for them to even do the surgery,” Romeo said. “They have to make sure my lungs are okay, my heart’s okay, my GI is okay. Every part of me had to be x-rayed and examined until they felt my chances of taking a kidney from anybody and utilizing it for the length of the kidney was appropriate.”
“I had all the physical tests and I had to have psychological evaluations to make sure I was really prepared to do it and in the right state of mind,” Mitchell said.
On July 21, 2021, Mitchell got word that he was a match and the transplant was approved. It just happened to be Romeo’s birthday and now Mitchell had a once in a lifetime gift to give him
“Boy, what a day to get that news,” Mitchell said. “I went and got him a birthday card and wrote in it that I was a match. A little later, we’re sitting around having cake and ice cream and I handed him the card. He was reading it and he got to the part that I had wrote, ‘oh, by the way I’m a match.’ And that was the start of our journey.”
The surgery happened in January of this year and since then Romeo said he feels like the picture of health.
“He’s back like he was, doing the dance-jiggy and that makes me feel great,” Mitchell said.