The most recent chapter in Jerry and Kathy Butler’s romance started where so many modern romances do: with a free grill.
Their actual relationship began in the ‘90s with a haunted house meet-up and a minor league hockey game first date. But their latest marital adventure started with Jerry winning a grill from the Texas Roadhouse and then subsequently twisting his knee trying to get it into the backyard.
While a new grill is good, a bum knee is not—not usually, anyway.
In this case, the resulting trip to a health clinic turned into a diagnosis of stroke-level high blood pressure and failing kidneys. Jerry, in his mid-40s, hadn’t been feeling ill and was shocked by the diagnosis.
“I had no symptoms whatsoever,” Jerry said in a Zoom interview.
The doctors told Jerry his kidney function measured 11. Normal kidney function measures 60.
“When they first told me, I thought it was a death sentence. I really did,” Jerry said.
A specialist at North Florida Regional Medical Center explained to the Butlers that it wasn’t a death sentence, but that the end-stage kidney failure would force Jerry to start on dialysis almost immediately.
He was healthy enough to be able to choose peritoneal dialysis, which meant he could undergo the blood filtering process in his home at night while he slept. He had surgery for an abdominal catheter, and he and Kathy both trained to do the dialysis manually before they were given a machine to aid the nightly treatments.
“I am extremely proud of the way he handled the situation because he could have given up,” Kathy said in a phone interview. “Some people may not have done the things they needed to do for dialysis. But he is awesome. He is so aware and knows everything [about his disease and treatments].”
Not too long after he started dialysis, Jerry also was able to go on the official kidney transplant list. That year, 2016, more than 95,000 people in the United States were on the national waitlist for a kidney transplant, but only 19,000 eligible recipients got one, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.
Jerry said he was told he might have to wait three to five years before getting a transplant, especially if he was waiting on a deceased donor. Live donor organ donations are generally faster, but they account for just a third of U.S. kidney transplants.
Several friends and acquaintances signed up to get screened to see if they were compatible as donors for Jerry, but none of them panned out—at least until his wife got screened.
Kathy hadn’t gotten tested immediately. Her mother had been ill, and Kathy was too busy taking care of her to consider donation. But once her mother passed away, Kathy was screened for compatibility.
“It is amazing to me that it did work out the way it did. Everything we had gone through up to that point, and Kathy was a match,” Jerry said. “It was a surprise to both of us.”
The initial matching began a lengthy process of screenings and assessments—both physical and mental—for the couple. They saw counselors, health educators and surgeons to prepare them for the potential consequences of a kidney transplant.
“One of the things they asked was ‘How you are going to feel if you donate the kidney and it doesn’t work for him?’” Kathy said. “I was completely honest: ‘I would be devastated. It would be heartbreaking if it didn’t work. But do I need the kidney? No, I don’t. He needs the kidney.’ “
So in June 2018, surgeons at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville removed one of Kathy’s kidneys and implanted it in Jerry. His struggling kidneys weren’t removed so now he has three.
“Jerry is collecting kidneys,” Kathy said with a laugh. She said she hopes he doesn’t have to collect any more—but she worries knowing the statistics say transplanted kidneys last “maybe 20 years.”
One of the surgeons described Kathy’s donation as a “pretty little kidney” so she said she and Jerry tease each other about it: “I ask him, ‘You got my pretty little kidney. How’s my little kidney doing today?’”
Like the diagnosis and dialysis, the transplant has once again changed their life and routines. Jerry, now 48, said he is doing well on the anti-rejection drugs he has to take daily, and follow-up visits to the Mayo Clinic have shown his body is tolerating the new kidney.
With Jerry on immunosuppressant medications, COVID-19 has meant the entire family, including the Butler’s two children, 20-year-old Kyli and 17-year-old Brock, have been careful about staying healthy and avoiding the coronavirus.
Their collective experiences prepared them for a more COVID-cautious world. With home dialysis, “you learn to wash your hands a very different way,” Jerry said. And mask-wearing became routine.
“I was wearing masks when masks weren’t cool,” said Jerry, the sales manager at MARC Radio in Gainesville.
He was able to get the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine last week, and while the Butlers hope for a return to a more normal world complete with travel and eating out, some things will stay the same.
“We are always together,” Jerry said. “Everything we do is together.”
And this Valentine’s Day, Jerry will be back at the grill again, cooking his “awesome” steaks at Kathy’s request, and enjoying time with his family and feeling well.
“I couldn’t really ask for a better gift that that,” Jerry said.
Jerry Butler's employer, MARC Radio, is a sister company of Mainstreet Daily News.