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VALUES / Out culture, our beliefs, our responsibilities

Sacrifice for a Friend

They were fellow congregants and pals, but the bond was loose--until his kidney disease worsened and he needed a transplant. Her casual offer to help became all too real.

December 15, 1999|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the outside, Dennis Gates and Janet Dixon don't seem like a very good match. He's married, she's single. He lives in Simi Valley, she lives near Hollywood. He's white, she's black.

On the inside, luckily, the two match very well. They both believe race shouldn't be a factor in friendship. They both belong to the same church. And they both have the same blood type.

And for Gates, that's a matter of his quality of life and the looming threat of an early death. Gates needs a kidney transplant, and this afternoon at UCLA Medical Center he will get one from his friend Dixon.

"I don't have the words to say how truly appreciative I am," said Gates, 31, who has four boys, ages 10, 8, 4 and 2. "That she is willing to go through with the surgery and put aside her life. . . . I'm just blown away by her heart."

The four-hour operation will mean a new life for Gates. If all goes well, he will be freed from his painful dialysis treatments, which, despite being life-sustaining, are not a true substitute for functional kidneys. For the past 2 1/2 years, Gates has spent three hours and 15 minutes--three times a week--hooked up to the blood-purifying machine.

"I can get really tired of dialysis," said Gates, who could only have expected to live another 15 years without a donor. "But if it weren't for it, I wouldn't be alive."

When the Los Angeles Church of Christ asked for volunteers to donate a kidney to Gates more than a year ago, Dixon remembers she reflexively signed up--along with 70 other people.

"I was like, 'Yeah, whatever. Put me on the list.' I was trying to be nice," Dixon said.

It seemed appropriate that Dixon, who met Gates in church about six years ago, would want to help. After all, Gates found her a job at his workplace after the Northridge quake shut down her former employer.

Still, it didn't seem quite real. The pair had since drifted apart. Dixon moved and began working in Hollywood. The seriousness of Gates' condition, however, became very real one evening about 18 months ago when Dixon visited the Gates home for dinner.

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"Dennis had always been in great shape," remembers Dixon. "But that night he was so pale, so skinny, so sick. I couldn't believe it. He's married, he's got young boys. It just broke my heart.

"That's when it hit me and I said, 'Oh, I guess I'm really doing this,' " she added.

Since then, the pair have kept in close contact. For weeks now, they've been talking every day on the phone. Their talks are rarely grim and almost always humorous.

"That's just the relationship we've always had," Dixon said. "He'll say things like, 'You better be taking good care of my kidney.' "

The pair's different races have also led to humorous asides as they prepared for surgery. During one pre-surgical meeting, Dixon had brought a white girlfriend along to the hospital. When a medical worker entered the room and saw Gates, a white woman and Dixon, she made an incorrect assumption about who was the kidney donor.

"Her jaw literally dropped. She didn't try to hide her reaction," Gates said. "Like most people, she just didn't expect it."

It was an understandable assumption. Just three of UCLA's 260 kidney transplants this year involved interracial donations.

But there's some irony to today's surgery as well. Gates grew up in a small Texas town where, as he said, Dixon would have probably been called the "N-word."

"I just think some people are hateful," Gates said. "As far as the race issue goes for me, I try to remember the basic commandment that Jesus gave to love one another. People want to say it means this and it means that, but I think it's pretty straightforward."

One healthy kidney will mean a new life with his family when Gates is fully recovered in four to six months. For the first time in years, he won't have to hear his wife tell his children, "Daddy is too tired to play."

"I haven't been to the beach with my family in more than two years," said Gates, who was diagnosed with a rare kidney disease after being discharged from the Navy nine years ago. "I'm really looking forward to going with them."

Meanwhile, one kidney for Dixon, who should be fully recovered in four months, will not change her lifestyle at all. She knows this firsthand from her sister, who unexpectedly lost a kidney several years ago and has led a normal life since then.

"My only fear is that the kidney works for him," said Dixon, 35, who works for a Christian television network. "I know he's counting down the hours to get off dialysis."

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The odds, however, greatly favor Gates' body accepting Dixon's kidney, say UCLA doctors. Given the ongoing national shortage of kidneys, the major worry is the donation, not the surgery.

Nationally, about 44,000 patients are waiting for kidney transplants. Gates was placed on the transplant list two years ago, but he probably would have had to wait at least another four years before a donor was found, doctors say.

The operation has an even greater chance of success because the kidney comes from a live donor. About two-thirds of kidney donations are from cadavers whose organs can be traumatized by death and must then be stored for hours or days, say doctors.

Organ donation is "the ultimate gift," said H. Albin Gritsch, the UCLA surgeon who will implant Dixon's kidney into Gates. "There are few sacrifices greater that someone could give."

Gates and Dixon expected to see each other before this morning's surgery, but both were at a loss for what words, if any, would come out.

"I've been thinking about what I can say," Dixon said. "But I don't know what I could say without being an emotional dramatic mess."

Martin Miller can be reached by e-mail at martin.miller@latimes.com.

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