BURKE COUNTY, GA – (True Citizen / WJBF)
It’s the one-time Thomas Kelly says he was thankful for having a sinus infection.
A routine visit for cold symptoms left doctors concerned with some of his lab work. Used to the aches and sluggish feeling associated with diabetes and high blood pressure, Kelly thought little of it. A few days later, he was in the grocery store picking up lettuce for his sister’s restaurant when he got the call that his body was in trouble. The nephrologist insisted that he get to the emergency room and to get there fast. Once Thomas arrived, he was in end stage renal failure – his kidneys were functioning at only 9 percent. The next words from his doctor hit Thomas and his sister, Sarah-Ann Kelly, in the gut.
“You either have kidney disease or cancer.”
The siblings gravely prepared themselves for whatever was to come next. Their father had died from cancer at the age of 38. On this March day in 2019, Thomas was also 38.
The news that followed over the next few days was both a relief and a shock. All the issues Thomas had been dealing with, diabetes, high blood pressure; those were merely symptoms of the disease. Now, he would face an even bigger obstacle – the only cure for him is a transplant.
“To be honest, when I found out it was my kidneys, I almost felt like a weight was lifted,” Thomas says, “I thought, ‘Okay, this is something you can go after.’ I knew I couldn’t just throw in a white flag and say to heck with it. I had to put one foot in front of the other and just keep on going.” Dialysis began immediately.
While Sarah-Ann and their mother, Debbie Salter, talk about the changes in diet and all the ways to prevent infection, Thomas laughs about the time a staff member at the dialysis center asked him if he were single. “I just looked at them. Then I looked at my mom and Sarah-Ann. I told them, ‘Why would I get married when I already have a mom and a sister. I don’t need a third woman telling me what to do.’”
Thomas has now moved to at home dialysis, and Sarah-Ann preps him every night for the eight-hour long process. Stepping in to be his caretaker wasn’t even a question in the younger sister’s mind.
“Thomas and I have an unspoken closeness,” she says. “We’ve always had each other’s back. This isn’t the first difficult life situation we’ve faced together. I know if I needed him to, he’d step up to the plate for me, and he has. We’ve spent more time together recently, and I’m just glad to have had that. I just hate the reason for it.”
Time that used to be spent at the family restaurant, Burke Perk, is now often spent on the road, traveling to different centers for testing as they work to get Thomas on various transplant lists. He’s on the waiting list at centers in Augusta, Knoxville, Tenn., Charlotte, North Carolina, Jacksonville, Fla. and Charleston, South Carolina. Sarah-Ann says the average wait time in the state of Georgia is seven to 10 years, so the family hopes being on multiple lists will increase their chances at finding a matching donor. So far, no one in the family has qualified.
“But we’d really love to find a living donor, have the procedure in Augusta and get this thing done,”Sarah-Ann says, adding that living donor organs typically last twice as long.
Debbie says there’s a stigma attached to organ donation across the board, with one of the major concerns being cost. “Every possible donor goes through different gates. Once you get to the level where they begin testing, all of that is paid for. The donor does not have to pay a dime.”
As the days go by, Thomas’ health continues to be at risk. The port in his abdomen could be a welcome center for infection if not careful, and a cold could take him off the transplant list completely.
Each month, he has to send blood work and urinalysis to the centers to make sure he is still healthy enough to receive a kidney. “This will continue until we either find a donor or get a call for a kidney,” Sarah-Ann says, her expression turning serious. “Most people who are waiting for a kidney die from infection. It’s their number one killer. We have to be so careful about every little thing.”
“Thomas has been remarkable through this whole thing,” Sarah-Ann says, catching a quick glimpse of her brother as their mother glances between the pair, tears in her eyes.
“He has actually been the one to encourage us to stay positive,”Debbie says.
“He did say that he knows God has him here for a purpose. When the doctor gave him the news, Thomas asked if there were anything he did to cause this or something that he should have done to prevent it. The doctor said it’s genetic. It just picked his body. I think that eased his mind knowing that though this is life changing, it isn’t something that he did to himself.”
Now, the community has rallied behind the family to help raise the $10,000 required for Thomas to have the transplant once a donor is found. There are several raffles taking place, and a Florida Gator sign is making its way to the yards of Georgia Bulldogs fans. Recipients of the sign “donate to relocate” to support Thomas, a diehard fan of the red and black. Last week, the Fellowship of Christian Students of Edmund Burke Academy donated proceeds from their See You at the Pole t-shirts sales to the fund for Thomas, and football players and cheerleaders sported his initials on their helmets and hair bows during Friday night’s game. Spartan fans made donations and purchased raffle tickets throughout the evening, raising more than $500. Thomas sat in awe at the generosity of his peers.
“This community is just amazing,” Debbie says. “From our work family to our own family to our friends who have reached out to help us. They’ve offered to come in and work if we need them, promising to take care of our customers. It’s so reassuring, and this wouldn’t just happen in any other community.”
“We have tried to look at everything differently,” Sarah-Ann adds. “We try not to say, ‘Why us? Why is this happening?’ and our community has made that easier.”
“To be honest, I don’t know anyone else who would support and help me as she has in the past and will in the future,” he says. “And the community’s involvement has been overwhelming. We are blessed.”For Thomas, Sarah-Ann has been his protector, his biggest supporter.
To follow Thomas’ journey, visit ww.caringbridge.org/visit/thomaskelly425. For fundraiser or donation information, see the Facebook page Thomas Needs a Kidney. Anyone interested in being tested to be a donor, should contact Shelby Adams, Living Transplant Donor Coordinator at Augusta University’s Kidney Transplant Center, at 706.721.8560 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to let her know you are calling in regard to Thomas Kelly.
This story first appeared in The True Citizen.