Eleven years ago, Rex Smith’s kidneys shut down while he was being treated with an antibiotic. Fortunately, his kidneys resumed function not long after, but Rex did not realize that they were not working at full strength. Like many people, he had no symptoms as his kidney function decreased. In 2018, he was shocked when told he was in kidney failure again.
Birmingham resident Rex owns his own business in Royal Oak. When not working, Rex is involved with his church, and likes to travel, golf, fish and do charity work.
Some of Rex’s volunteer work is with the National Kidney Foundation of Michigan (NKFM), where he served on their volunteer Board of Directors for six years. During his Board tenure, he and family members attended the Kidney Ball and the Kidney Walk at the Detroit Zoo fundraisers. “I think the work that the NKFM does is very valuable, especially their children’s programs and Kids’ Camp, where parents of children with kidney disease get a break and the children feel like ‘just regular kids’ for a week. Their prevention programs really help people understand how to prevent diabetes. Plus their support for kidney patients is great.”
A large number of people who know Rex stepped forward to be tested as a possible kidney match. Rex’s son Eric and daughters Jessica and Emily also volunteered to go through the rigorous evaluation to be possible donors. Eric’s body size was closer to his Dad’s so he was selected as the best candidate. Eric was studying at New York University and whenever he returned to Michigan, he would continue his donor evaluation until all the tests were completed.
“I wasn’t all that thrilled. It’s a huge commitment and you worry about your kids,” says Rex. “I was very fortunate to have such a wonderful family. Everybody was part of the solution to my kidney disease.”
“I wanted to do it,” recalls Eric, 24, of the decision to donate. “It was scary and I felt nervous but it was also pretty profound.”
Rex went on dialysis for four months while being evaluated for a kidney transplant. Many people don’t realize that even if you’re on dialysis, you still have to be healthy to get on the transplant list. Rex had to lose weight and have a complete medical work up before his name could even be put on the list.
Being on dialysis for four to five hours three days a week was an eye-opener for Rex, who says, “When you haven’t been on dialysis, you don’t understand where these patients have been. I was the only one in my dialysis group who was on the transplant list. People on dialysis are depressed — I was surprised at how many people just accepted it. Some of them just need help completing all the paperwork and appointments to get on the transplant list. You need family and friend support while you’re there. Dialysis is like a plane circling around and trying to land, with landing being a kidney transplant.”
On March 13, 2019, Eric Smith donated one of his kidneys to his father, Rex Smith. Rex, who turns 65 this month, recovered very quickly. Since his son Eric’s kidney was such a good match, Rex requires only a low dose of immunosuppressants and was back to work in a month.
The transplant was a whole family affair. While Rex and Eric recovered from their surgeries, each member had a specific role. Sue Smith cared for her husband Rex. Eric’s sister Emily, who was studying to be a physician’s assistant, took time off from her program to help. Oldest sibling Jessica flew home from Denver and managed the home front, filled in for the others when needed, and kept everyone organized and on schedule. She also helped Eric move back to New York City and stayed with him for a few weeks as he recovered more fully and returned to school.
When telling people about the transplant, Eric discovered the prevalence of kidney disease as many would relate stories about knowing people with the disease. He shares that when he returned to school, he told one of his professors that his reason for missing classes and assignment deadlines was because he had donated a kidney to his father. The professor responded that it was the best excuse he had ever heard and that from now on, it would now be the only legitimate excuse that he would accept.
This March, when Eric registered for a half marathon in New York to celebrate his kidney donation and raise money for the National Kidney Foundation, little did he know that it would be cancelled because of a world pandemic. Being determined, and having done all the training, he ran the race by himself in NYC. Eric is now back in Michigan, having graduated with a master’s degree in music composition from NYU. Although currently visiting with his family and staying home due to COVID-19, he plans to return to NYC once COVID cases there have decreased. His goals include finding a position where he can write scores for visual media, write and perform songs, or produce other artists’ music.
“I have a lot to be grateful for,” Eric says. “I want people to know that it [the kidney donation] did not interrupt my life. I graduated on time and ran a half marathon the following year. I was only uncomfortable for a couple weeks.”
For Father’s Day this year, even though the two men are staying at home, they plan to maybe take a drive and enjoy each other’s company. “My father and I were always connected. He’s a great father and he has supported me through my life,” states Eric. “I also did this so the rest of our family could have him longer, too. It was very humbling but also special to me to be able to do it.”
“It’s great to get a new kidney — especially a young one!” Rex says with a laugh.
“Look seriously into being a live kidney donor or just an organ donor in general,” concludes Eric. “It’s not just one life you save, but all the other lives that person is connected to.”
Rex and Eric both encourage others to donate a kidney to save a life. More information on kidney donation can be found here.