Twice each week, around 5:45 a.m., Al Harris makes the 43-mile drive in his white Chevrolet Tahoe from his home in Flowery Branch to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. He usually listens to music, but sometimes sits in silence. Occasionally, he makes a phone call or two. No matter what he chooses to do on that trip, though, Harris is always thinking about how thankful he is for his kidney.
Harris, a retired Marine of 25 years who served all along the East Coast and overseas in Iraq, recently received a new kidney from John Morrell, a man he served with in the Marines. The new kidney has drastically changed his life following an April 2009 diagnosis of polycystic kidney disease. So, making that drive to Atlanta to check that everything is on track is no problem.
“I said to John, ‘I just can’t tell you how grateful I am,’” Harris said. “He was like, ‘Sir, how can I not do this?’ It just takes your breath away to think about somebody that’s that selfless, but that’s who (Marines) are, that's who he is.”
Polycystic kidney disease happens when clusters of cysts form in the kidney. Sometimes the cysts can be removed or treated with medication, but for Harris, he needed a transplant. It wasn’t all that surprising, though. The disease is hereditary — his sister, mother and grandmother, all affected — so he knew there was a chance it would come eventually.
And there’s not much patients can do to make it better. He said he was already active, so he didn’t have to change much about his lifestyle after he was diagnosed. But the cysts kept growing and eventually, in April 2017, he went into full renal failure, meaning his kidney wasn’t functioning properly.
“It just got to the point where I had very little energy,” Harris said. “I didn’t know how bad I felt until I got on dialysis and started feeling better.”
The next month, he began dialysis, which helps do the work the kidneys are supposed to. Staying on dialysis wasn't going to solve the problem long-term, though.
“It’s been hard,” said Maddie Harris, Al’s daughter. “It’s hard seeing your superhero, kind of like, not at his best.”
So Maddie and Al’s wife, Christine, created a page on Facebook in hopes of finding someone willing to donate their kidney so he didn’t have to wait on the transplant list. The page was called, “Wanted - Gently Used Kidney.”
“I remember the night my mom made the first post, nobody really knew that my dad was sick,” said Maddie, 18. “I remember lying in bed, looking at all the comments and crying tears of joy because I knew my dad was amazing — I just didn't know how amazing and how much impact he had on other people's lives.”
Harris certainly had an impact on Morrell’s life. As soon as Morrell saw the post on Facebook, he knew he had to do something for a man he looked up to as a leader and mentor ever since he met him. They were only together in the Marines for about a year, but that was long enough for Harris to show he was a different kind of leader.
“I took about five minutes to go to the website to learn about being a living kidney donor, and I just told my wife I had to do it,” said Morrell, now a police officer with the Mount Joy Borough Police Department in Pennsylvania.
Harris was a commanding officer while Morrell was a non-commissioned officer. Morrell said there’s a stigma in the Marines of higher-ranked officers treating those under them poorly. But not Harris. There was something different about him.
“Everybody looked up to him,” Morrell said. “Marines today, that I know, that I served with, still talk about how they look up to Al. He’s one of the few leaders — years later after everyone has come and gone, gotten out of the military, they’re old, fat and bearded — we would still line up to help out.”
So when he heard Harris was in need of a kidney, Morrell didn’t hesitate. He got tested to see if he was a match.
As soon as Morrell found out, he called Harris to let him know. About 10 days later, Harris’ coordinator at the hospital called to tell him the good news, but Harris had to let her know she was a little late on delivering the news.
“I’m surprised by anyone who would do this,” Harris said. “But not really, knowing him and knowing the quality of people that I was fortunate enough to work with, day in and day out, for all those years.”
The surgery was scheduled shortly after on Aug. 7, and Harris said things went well. Morrell said the same. The first thing both men asked when they woke up from surgery was how the other was doing. Morrell took it a step further and walked down to Harris’ room to check on him. His nurse wasn’t too fond of that.
“I’m feeling better every day,” Harris said. “I’m still getting used to having my freedom back, really, and being untethered from having to do dialysis. OK, yeah I’ve got to go to a few appointments down at Emory each week, but so what? That’s a small price to pay for everything I’m getting from this gift I’ve been given.”
Harris said the next year will be “pretty intense” with appointments to make sure everything is progressing with his new kidney. But no matter how long those drives to Atlanta seem, he’s just happy to get back to normal life.
“Even though my experience in the service had already given me this perspective, this just really reinforced it,” Harris said. “There’s a lot of things we think are so important in life, that frankly, aren’t important at all. I’ve been given the gift of more time so I intend to make the best of it.”