This week, 39-year-old Brian Yontz donated a kidney to his 67-year-old father, Rick Yontz, at the Comprehensive Transplant Center of Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center.
But the Springfield father and son clearly aren’t the only Yontzes being touched by the Yontz family transplant.
The first operation — the one to remove the kidney — will be performed on Barbara Yontz’s firstborn, after all, and the second will insert it into the body of her husband of 43 years.
It would be a mistake, too, to overlook Katie Stimson, and not just because her home in Upper Arlington will serve as the family’s base of operations this week.
The transplant recipient is not only her father; he’s the grandfather of her 6-month-old son Teddy. As important, the donor is Teddy’s uncle and the brother Katie’s looked up to since she was able to look up.
And then there are others: Brian’s wife, Erin, a nurse practitioner who will be looking after him post-operative; Brian and Erin’s 11- and 6-year old daughters, Claire and Carolyn, whose father and grandfather will be in surgery; and Theodore Stimson, Katie’s husband, who, in addition to all the other reasons, spends times with his in-laws virtually every week.
The health issues leading to the transplant surfaced 25 years ago when Rick Yontz was diagnosed with diabetes. Because he’d passed 40 by then, doctors first assumed he had Type II diabetes.
While there later was some thought he might instead have had it since birth, Rick also points the finger at stress.
“I thought a lot of it had to do with the pressure of being a young school principal,” he said. “I wanted to do everything right. I wanted to be everything to every student.”
Diet and oral medication helped to manage the diabetes until about eight years ago, when insulin injections were required. Then 18 months ago, his nephrologist, Dr. Pius Kurian, told Rick he was headed for dialysis.
At the time “I said, ‘I can beat this,’” Yontz recalled.
Notwithstanding the yeoman work of wife Barbara, who began making all their food from scratch, Yontz started learning the procedures for at-home dialysis about when Dr. Kurian had predicted it would be needed.
The machine that filters his blood from 8 p.m. nightly to 6 a.m. daily, has taken the ache out of his legs and restored enough energy that Yontz, now in his 43rd year in education, can volunteer to tutor kindergarten through third grade students at Snowhill Elementary School twice a week.
“I love it,” he said, of the tutoring. “My prayer every day for the last 43 years going to school has been, ‘Dear God, help me to make a difference in someone’s life today.’”
That his son Brian, an associate professor of education at Wittenberg University, followed him into the field is a great source of pride.
“I spent eight years in West Carrollton as an elementary principal and was known as Mr. Yontz,” Rick said. Six months later, when Brian began working with teachers in the schools through Wittenberg, “I (became) known as Brian’s father. That makes me smile every time I think about it.”
Brian Yontz has also followed his father as “a person of faith” and, the son adds, “a person who believes in science and modern medicine,” insistent that the two are “absolutely not competing values.”
Those beliefs, plus an admitted initial naivete about transplants, made his decision to donate a kidney to his father “a no-brainer since the beginning.”
“I define love as laying down your life for another person,” Brian said.
When he first considered donating — and often since — Brian also remembered an example set years ago when Springfielder Marty Rastatter donated a kidney to the now late Rick Krumlauf.
Although not as a donor, Brian’s sister, Katie, found a way to express her love and support for her ailing father not long after he told her he was going on dialysis and headed for a transplant.
“Your first reaction is a little bit of self-pity,” she said. “What do you mean, my Dad’s sick?”
Although Katie was pregnant at the time, which she said heightened her emotional reaction, it didn’t take long for the project manager to Google, then call the head of nephrology at the OSU Wexner Medical Center, “just to ensure we were not missing anything.”
That led to an appointment, at which his good care in Springfield was confirmed, a supplement was prescribed to help his energy, and a doctor calmly announced that her father was going to be put on a transplant list, a bit of a jolt to all involved.
“In my mind, I just thought that would come later,” Katie said, agreeing the news was like hearing the click beneath a roller coaster car, followed by the slight jerk indicating the ride had actually begun.
“At that point, I was six months pregnant, so I knew I wouldn’t be able to donate a kidney,” she continued. “But my brother and I had conversations and he said ‘I’m going to get tested’ ” — words said with the same matter-of-factness the doctor had announced her father’s placement on the transplant list.
Brian’s wife, Erin, the nurse practitioner and mother of their two children, though not opposing the idea, had a natural reaction.
“There’s always going to be a concern about ‘What if,’ ” she said.
She then did on her husband’s behalf what Katie had done on her father’s behalf: She made a call.
“I talked to someone who had been a donor,” she said.
She also did her homework.
“My understanding is they think diabetes is about 50 percent inherited,” she said.
With no current signs of that, with Brian and her family’s active lifestyles (he’s run a half dozen marathons), and with the assurance that kidney donors go to the top of the transplant list if their kidneys fail, she felt reassured.
Barbara Yontz was far from that feeling when her son, enlisting his wife’s support, said: “Erin and I have talked and I want to give Dad my kidney.”
“Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” Barbara recalls saying. “As a mother, my gut reaction is to protect my children at all costs.”
She soon realized the “all” in “all costs” involved a potential cost to her husband’s health, then remembered when Rick’s doctor promised her that nobody’s life or health would be put at risk to save her husband, that promise also covered her son.
Ultimately she was relieved of responsibility in the matter when Brian suggested, “It’s not your decision.”
“That’s kind of what I’m holding on to,” said the woman who taught for 20 years at the Covenant Presbyterian Church preschool and now works at Clark State Community College.
She was able to let go in part because “Brian has always made good decisions in all phases of his life, professional, personal.”
The point of letting go is “where my faith comes in,” she said.
Her daughter Katie, stepped in as well.
“I know that my mom is anxious. This is her husband and her son. But, you know, I told my mom: This is what you want for your children. You want your children to grow up with a giving heart and love for their family. That’s what I want for my son.”
Barbara Yontz also knows that when it comes to her son, daughter-in-law and nurse practitioner Erin will have her back, not just in the days after surgery but the years ahead, making sure annual physicals are scheduled, good eating habits continued and a keen lookout kept for any signs of diabetes.
Katie said she had been oddly at peace with at least one aspect of the whole episode from the start.
“I just knew that my Dad was going to get a kidney. I just knew.”
And she knew that, in offering his kidney, the brother she always looked up to was doing so for the reasons she has always looked up to him.
To him, she said, “This is what you do.”
His father’s worst fears have been for his son.
“What I don’t want to happen is (a scenario in which) Brian gives me a kidney and something happens to Brian. That would kill me.”
Somewhat surprisingly, given all they’ve on their minds, the one thing that has taken all the Yontzes aback is the speed with which the big event has approached.
But a week before surgery, all seems in order.
Rick and Barbara Yontz got the summer furniture out for post-operative lounging, and because it’s Brian’s sabbatical year from Wittenberg, the girls are in school, and Erin has managed a month off to help, the timing seems perfect.
Aside from a good result for the transplant and recovery for him and Brian, Rick Yontz has one big hope: “I want somebody to read the article and hear about Brian and me and start thinking about donation.”
During his 43rd year in education, the proud father of a son with a Ph.D. in the field would like nothing more than for the Yontz family transplant to become a teaching moment of the sort that fulfills the prayer he has had every day he has gone off to school: “Dear God, help me to make a difference in someone’s life today.”