"Not your average healthy living guy"
Nine years earlier, Jason had quit using methamphetamine after nearly 30 years of addiction. Since getting sober, he says, he was always looking for ways to help others. But it didn't seem possible, after the beating his body had taken over those 30 years, that he'd ever be healthy enough to donate an organ.
"I was not your average healthy living guy," he says. "I thought they'd tell me, 'Your body is a train wreck. Thank you for trying, but it's not going to work.'"
Being turned away as a donor isn't uncommon. In fact, Jason's wife later looked into donating and didn't make it through the screening process. The transplant team told her that, although her two kidneys worked well enough as a pair, she might not be able to live a full, healthy life with just one.
In contrast, during months of medical evaluation, Jason passed one test after another. He underwent a CT scan and an MRI and gave "copious amounts of blood" for lab work. He spent 24 hours hauling around a large jug to collect all his urine for testing.
Eventually, to Jason's surprise, there were no more tests left to pass. He was found to be a good donor candidate.
Just before Thanksgiving in 2019, Jason got the call. Someone desperately needed a kidney, and it was time to go to UCSF for his surgery.
A get-well card and a kidney
Jason spent four days in the hospital after his surgery. The minimally invasive procedure left him with a few tiny scars, where small surgical instruments had been inserted to disconnect and remove his right kidney.
As he recuperated, his remaining kidney took over the work of his previous pair. Six weeks later, he was back at work.
He knew that somewhere, someone had his right kidney in their body – but who it was remained a mystery. "I just knew they took out my kidney, put it in a cooler and put it on a plane," he says.
He'd given the transplant team a get-well card to pass on to his recipient and included his email address. They told him they'd deliver the card three months after the transplant. Every time he checked his email, Jason looked for an unfamiliar name.
Three months later, the email came. His recipient was the mother of two young kids. She had an autoimmune disease that caused her body to attack her kidneys, leaving her dependent on dialysis to stay alive.
Her husband was willing to donate but wasn't a good match for her. With Jason's altruistic donation, she got a kidney and her husband donated one of his to someone else. In total, Jason's gift created a five-person transplant chain.
As the COVID pandemic began and most people retreated indoors, Jason's recipient was finally emerging. Freed from the intensive process of dialysis, her family bought a camper and hit the road.
One of their stops was in the San Francisco Bay Area. Jason got to meet his recipient and her family, and witness firsthand how his kidney had transformed their lives.
"Let's do the liver!"
Still elated from meeting his kidney recipient, Jason got an out-of-the-blue call from his UCSF donor advocate, Sandra Weinberg, checking on how he was doing. "I was all fired up," he says. "I told her, 'Let's do the liver!'"
Sandra was decidedly less enthusiastic. Being a liver donor, she said, was a whole different ballgame, and anyway, he was still recovering from his last surgery. Donating again was out of the question until at least a year had passed.
"All I heard was the part about waiting a year," Jason says.
Jason settled in to wait, but he knew he'd try to donate again. He attended an informational webinar with UCSF's liver transplant team and, when the year had passed, started the liver donor evaluation process. The team needed to make sure Jason could safely donate a portion of his liver without harming his own physical and mental health.
Once again, after all the testing was complete, he was found to be a good candidate.
In June 2021, he got the call to come in for liver donation surgery. It marked his entry into a very small club; there are only about 100 living donors in the U.S. who've given more than one organ.
As Sandra had warned him, this surgery was different. Unlike kidney donors, living liver donors typically have open surgery, with a large incision. In general, open surgery means more post-op pain and a longer recovery compared with minimally invasive procedures.
"They open you up. I was under [anesthesia] for 10 hours and in the hospital for 10 days," Jason says.
Also, Jason knew that unlike his kidney, which had been sent by air to the recipient, his liver had been transplanted into someone in the same unit of the very hospital he was recovering in.
A momentous hug in the hallway
The medical team urged Jason to get up and walk around as soon as possible, to speed his recovery. On one of those slow-motion strolls through the unit, he saw a woman lingering in the hallway. In pain and not in the mood for chatting, he still felt drawn to speak to her.
"I asked if she was on the donor or recipient side, and she said that her dad had just received a liver transplant," Jason says. He asked the date of her father's surgery, and as soon as she answered, Jason knew he was talking to his recipient's daughter. There'd been only one liver transplant on the day of Jason's surgery, and she named that date.
The two exchanged a hug right there in the hallway. "I just started crying," Jason remembers. "I felt like God hugged me through that woman."
He learned that her father had liver cancer. An attempt to remove the tumor-ridden part of his liver had failed – the cancer had come back. A family member then volunteered to donate but wasn't a match. Jason's decision to donate a second time had given his recipient the chance at a cancer-free life.
An ambassador for donation
Jason doesn't stay in close touch with his recipients, but he's content to know that they're out there in the world, enjoying more time with the people who love them. "I feel like my part is complete. I don't need anything else out of this process," he says.
His involvement in organ donation awareness, however, is ongoing. He's an ambassador for Donor Network West, the organ procurement organization for Northern California and northern Nevada.
He's spoken on panels, walked in fundraisers and staffed tables at fairs and DMVs to encourage people to register as donors. And when UCSF's transplant team has a potential donor who wants to talk to someone who's been through the process, Jason steps up again.
He stays involved because his experience has opened his eyes to a tremendous need that is always there but mostly unseen by the public. "I'll see a sign in the back of someone's car, or someone holding up a poster at a football game, about someone they love who needs an organ," he says. "There are so many people who are sick and in need."
What does he tell potential organ donors about the experience? Describing it as one of the most amazing events of his life, he also remembers the challenges.
"It hurts for sure," he says of both surgeries. "It's the first two weeks that are the toughest." But he adds that today, other than some sensitivity along his liver surgery scar, he feels the same as he did before donating either of the organs.
The mental challenges of being a donor can also be tough. Although Jason always felt safe in the hands of his care team, he struggled with the unknowns surrounding the outcomes for his recipients.
"I didn't know if I'd donate the organ and their bodies would reject it and they'd die," he says. "Or if, for example, I'd donate part of my liver to a [recovered] alcoholic and they'd start drinking again and ruin it."
Jason credits his wife's philosophy on giving with helping him through.
"One of greatest things I've learned from her is that, when I come across that guy broken down at the side of the freeway, my job is to be of service – not to decide what happens next or how they receive the generosity," he says. "The job is to give and let go."