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Golfing links kidney donor, recipient

by Kurt Hildebrand
Nevada Appeal News Service
Shannon Litz/Nevada Appeal News ServiceJohn St. Clair and John Watson, of Gardnerville, record their scores from the first hole at the Genoa Lakes resort course. The once-a-year golf buddies were brought closer, when a hereditary disease began destroying Watson's kidneys and St. Clair donated one of his.
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Until recently, Rotarians John St. Clair and John “Jack” Watson met once a year for more than a decade to play golf. Both men were members of their Rotary clubs and participated in the U.S. Golfing Fellowship of Rotarians.

The two men came from very different places. St. Clair, 63, is a native of Idaho, and Watson, who until recently lived in the Massachusetts town where he grew up, is 73.

But despite those differences, they were linked in one important way.

When a hereditary disease began destroying Watson’s kidneys, St. Clair was able to donate one of his.

Watson and wife, Barbara, have lived in Gardnerville for three years.

He knew there was the possibility he would develop polycsyctic kidney disease. His daughter Lynn Ann learned she had the hereditary disease, in which growths develop inside the kidney until the organ fails, in the late 1980s.

“We think it came from my father,” Watson said. “He died in 1963, and at the time there were no ultrasounds. We weren’t aware until Lynn was diagnosed with it, and she was told we needed to get tested. I never really worried about it. I knew that some day the kidney might fail and what are you going to do about it?”

While Watson had some problems over the years, it wasn’t until last spring that the disease began to take hold.

“My nephrologist, Dr. Michael Murphy in Carson City, determined that I should apply to be on the list for a donor kidney,” Watson said. “We went to Truckee and went through the routine and they put me on the list.”

St. Clair learned of his friend’s plight through a mutual friend in the golfing fellowship in Fort Collins, Colo., while he and wife, Brenda, were visiting their son in Denver.

“I had mentioned to them I was on the transplant list, and my kidneys were on the point of failure,” Watson said.

During a conversation with mutual friends in Colorado, St. Clair learned that Watson needed a transplant.

“Brenda and I started talking about what was involved,” St. Clair said. “After we had time to talk, think and pray about it, I sent Jack an e-mail. I said ‘I’m willing to be tested to find out if I can give you a kidney.'”

The timing couldn’t have been better for Watson, whose kidneys were deteriorating to the point where he would need dialysis.

“Coincidence or divine intervention, call it what you want,” Watson said.

St. Clair said he underwent the testing procedure and learned that he was a 95 percent match for Watson.

Surgery had to be delayed for three months after Watson developed heart trouble, but on the day before Valentine’s Day, they were both at California Pacific Medical Hospital in San Francisco and ready for surgery.

“They detached the kidney using orthoscopy and then made a larger incision to remove it,” St. Clair said. “I woke up, and the first thing I remember the doctor walked in and said the kidney is working fine. And I said, ‘yes, it’s all worth it.'”

St. Clair said that was the greatest moment of the whole experience.

“The next greatest moment was the other day when I saw Jack’s face and it had some color in it,” he said on Sept. 25.

St. Clair was out of the hospital and back home within days of the surgery.

“I have three little red marks on my abdomen and a scar, but nothing else has changed,” he said. I have a sense of relief that it’s over and I’m happy.”

For Watson, the new kidney meant he wouldn’t have to undergo dialysis.

“My nephrologist told me that my kidneys were so bad, that if I wasn’t having the operation the next week, I was going on dialysis,” he said. “I really wanted to avoid dialysis. Your lifestyle changes. I would have had to make a decision, and I really don’t know what decision I would have made.”

St. Clair said the experience showed him that the match for a kidney might not be as rare as commonly thought.

“You don’t need to have two kidneys,” he said. “My remaining kidney will take over 90 percent of the function I had with both kidneys and they can function with 20 percent. God gave us two kidneys for a reason.”

The links that led to the successful transplant brought both couples and the Watson children together at Genoa Lakes Golf Club for their first golf match since the surgery.