Former SSMS teacher donates kidney to former student
Steamboat Springs — When Steamboat Springs Middle School Principal Jerry Buelter forwarded an email to staff seeking a kidney donor for former student Henry Howard, Howard didn’t expect much.
“I sent it out thinking nothing was going to happen,” said Howard, who had struggled with poor kidney function for many years, having suffered from gout since the age of 20 and being diagnosed with chronic kidney disease three years ago.
Howard, now 29, had learned from his doctor in the past year that a transplant was needed, and his mother, a former middle school teacher, and wife, drafted a letter to school staff as one of many avenues seeking help for Howard, a son, husband and new father.
“About eight months ago, we were sort of seeing that I was going to need a kidney pretty soon,” Howard said.
While he was placed on a transplant waiting list, Howard said the expected wait time was three to five years, and priority was given to people already on dialysis, which Howard was not.
When the email seeking help reached teacher Tracy Bye’s computer, she remembered Howard from years before, when he attended Steamboat Springs Middle School, and agreed to undergo the necessary testing to find out if she might be a match.
“I have known Henry for as long as he’s lived here,” Bye said. “I knew he was having health issues, but I didn’t know it was kidney disease.”
A handful of Howard’s family and friends came forward to be tested, too, but Bye was the only person with the right blood type, compatible antigens and physical stature and health to be a match.
“Normally, you would expect a family member or someone you are really close to,” Howard said. “I was astounded at her willingness to offer herself and go through the process. It was humbling.”
When Bye learned her kidney would work for Howard, she was eager to move forward with the donation.
“I knew right away I would do it,” Bye said. “I just made sure it was OK with my family. And everybody was a go.”
In the weeks leading up to the surgery, Bye said she would calm her nerves by visiting the website for Rock1Kidney, a Denver-based nonprofit that aims to inspire kidney donors and share success stories.
“There are so many people on the waiting list for organ donations; if you can save a life, do it,” Bye said.
On Sept. 1, Bye and Howard each underwent successful surgeries to make the transplant happen.
Transplants such as the one Bye and Howard arranged benefit all patients currently on a waiting list for a transplant, according to Elizabeth Pomfret, professor of surgery and chief of the division of transplant surgery at the University of Colorado Hospital, where Bye and Howard went for surgery.
According to data from the hospital, nearly 100,000 patients in the United States are currently on the waiting list for a kidney transplant, including 1,834 in Colorado, and 1,000 specifically on the waiting list at the University of Colorado Hospital.
“The self-sacrifice and gift of living donation from heroes like Tracy benefit all patients waiting for a kidney transplant,” Pomfret said. “Her gift to Henry allows another patient on the waiting list who does not have a living donor to be transplanted, in addition to saving Henry’s life. Living donation represents the very best of mankind.”
Road to recovery
Bye, who retired from teaching in June after being honored as Steamboat Springs School District’s Teacher of the Year, recovered quickly from the surgery and was busy working last week running her wildlife rehab nonprofit, Born Free Wildlife Rehabilitation.
“I was bruised and had stitches, but four days later, I felt completely fine,” she said.
Howard’s recovery, while more complex, is also progressing smoothly.
The father of 16-month-old Elijah and husband of Julie gets bursts of energy and looks forward to returning to a normal life.
“In the past, I had really low energy. My day always felt like I was struggling through it, or it was cut in half, because I had to rest,” Howard said. “I’ve been tired and sick for a lot of years, and I’m ready to get back to normal.”
Together, Howard and his wife help run Come Let’s Dance, a nonprofit and community development organization working in Kampala, Uganda.
Bye said Howard’s energy, kindness and love are what made him so deserving of her gift.
“He is just one of those people that people love,” Bye said. “He deserves to have a healthy life and to be a dad.”
Howard said the experience has been humbling, from the generosity of Bye to the generosity of hundreds of friends and strangers who contributed financially to the medical bills associated with the procedure.
A Go Fund Me page set up by Howard’s sister raised more than $43,000 from friends, family, long-lost acquaintances and strangers from across the country.
“The community that has stepped up and supported Julie and I through this whole process, it’s really humbled me,” Howard said.
While Howard is looking forward to regaining his health and energy, he’s also enjoying a more simple pleasure — food.
“Kidneys filter things like phosphorus and potassium, so I’ve been on a white bread, cabbage and cauliflower diet for a couple months now, and for years, I’ve really had to watch my diet,” he said. “But I had a cheesesteak sandwich three days ago, and that was really good.”
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