For 25 of his 32 years, Johnny Grammar Jr. has lived with the reality of kidney disease. After two previous transplants, at age 15 and again at 19, the Columbus man is a walking testament to the patience and prayer he says he”s tried hard to practice. He urges others who may be in his situation to hold on to hope.
Although he has long been on three separate transplant lists, Grammar had begun to feel he would see no end to dialysis, the life-sustaining treatment for those with end stage renal disease.
But then, the call came.
“The phone rang at 2 o”clock in the morning on May 21,” he recalls vividly. “I wasn”t expecting it at all.” The startling alert from University Medical Center in Jackson created an adrenaline rush of hope and trepidation. The patient didn”t pack a bag, didn”t take any clothing. He and his fiancé, Kristina Gale, “just got in the car and took off, with hardly any money; we just knew we had to go. Kristina was crying, and I just kept thinking, ”I”m gonna live; I”m gonna live.””
The frantic trip hauntingly echoed one Grammar had taken years earlier, when his kidney malfunction was first discovered.
“When I was 7 years old, I went to my mama with my face all swollen up,” he recounts. “She thought it was a bee sting and took me to Dr. Buckley”s office. My creatinine (a waste product removed from the body by kidneys) was sky high. They rushed me to Le Bonheur, where I stayed two or three weeks.”
Doctors at Le Bonheur Children”s Medical Center in Memphis, Tenn., sent Grammar home with a medicine chest full of prescriptions and the caution that his kidney would some day fail.
“I was just a kid, and I really didn”t know what was in store for me in the future,” he relates somberly.
His mother, Lillian, who has always suspected her son”s medical problems stem from ingesting contaminated water, remembers as if it were yesterday.
“It was really tragic to see him as young as he was and have to go through this,” she shared. “We were in a state of shock; he”d always been healthy.”
Grammar would return to Le Bonheur seven years later for his first kidney transplant. The new organ functioned fairly well until he was 17. But while other boys his age were focused on proms, cars and girlfriends, he began a draining regimen of hemodialysis three times a week just to stay alive.
The second transplant took place at the University of Alabama at Birmingham when Grammar was 19; this time, function held up until he reached the age of 21.
Worry and financial stress took their toll. “It was hard not to give up,” Lillian admitted. “We just had to be strong.”
Unable to work consistently, Grammar had to eventually go on disability. But in spite of dialysis-related nausea and migraines, he concentrated on taking care of himself, keeping his body ready “for if and when the call came.”
“When you first get done (with a dialysis session), you feel puny; they”ve been pulling fluids off of you,” he says. “Eventually the toxic stuff starts building up in your body again; it”ll build up around your heart and lungs. You”ll start feeling like somebody”s sitting on your chest. … But I was good about watching my fluids because I was determined to get this third kidney.”
Third transplants are unusual, especially when donors are not family members, but in this instance, the match was obvious.
“They said they”d never seen a match so perfect,” Grammar says of the medical consensus in Jackson.
He”s enormously grateful to his unknown deceased donor and praises medical advances.
“The first time I stayed in the hospital a month. The second time, a week. This time, I stayed in the hospital five days.” But he currently has to return to Jackson twice each week for monitoring. The risk of rejection is highest during the early weeks of cautious recovery.
The most immediate health challenge, Grammar says, is “getting the immune system right.” While it remains weakened, he limits his exposure to crowds, especially in light of the swine flu scare.
Dr. Jason Dunn, a board-certified nephrologist with Nephrology Associates, P.C., in Columbus, is an important member of Grammar”s medical support team.
“He”s very fortunate,” the doctor stated. “It”s rare for someone to get a second kidney; it becomes even more rare to receive a third.”
Before the May surgery, Grammar was attending East Mississippi Community College, determined to complete an education repeatedly interrupted by ongoing health problems. He wants to eventually finish electricians” and welding classes, and stresses how supportive the school has been.
Times are financially tough. Without a job, he relies heavily on a monthly disability check, under $700. It doesn”t stretch far when rent, auto insurance, groceries and other bills clamor for attention. Kristina helps by working at Sonic. Travel to Jackson compounds the strain. There are times, he confesses, he”s not sure how he”ll make it.
But, above all, Grammar is humbled by the precious gift he”s been given. He”s doing all he can to follow doctors” orders.
“My insides need to heal a little bit more, but I exercise as much as I can,” he said.
“Exercise is God”s way of giving us the fountain of youth. I”m taking care of myself, drinking as much water as I can, keeping the kidney flushed out, doing what I”m supposed to do.
“You know, one day you think you”re gonna die, and now I just know I”m gonna live … ain”t nothin” but opportunity out there.
“I want to let other folks know there is hope. God works in mysterious ways. If it”s your first kidney or your second or third, prayers work — and keep your body in shape, be ready. Just pray every day. And when you get that gift of life, just take care of it.”
Editor”s note: The John Grammar Transplant Fund has been established at Regions Bank to assist with the Grammar family”s continuing medical expenses. For more information, contact Regions at 662-241-4174.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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