This story wasn’t Orlando Lowry’s idea. Neither was the Facebook post. Then again, neither was the kidney disease trying to kill him.
But kidney disease is taking aim at his family – it killed one brother in December, put another brother on dialysis at about the same time, and is starting to get good and angry with Orlando Lowry’s kidneys – and enough’s enough. Time to ask for help.
It’s not Lowry’s idea, though. Nor is it his ask.
“It’s just not my way,” he says.
Lowry is a private man, always has been, even if privacy isn’t easy when you’re the biggest man on campus at Shaker Heights High outside Cleveland, then a starting linebacker at Ohio State, then on the Colts for five years. Now he’s the football coach at Park Tudor. Privacy doesn’t come easy for Lowry, 54, but some information he can control.
“For 15 years, our kids didn’t know his kidneys were failing,” says Penny Lowry, Orlando’s wife and the reason for the Facebook post and, indirectly, this story.
See, one of their church friends sent me her Facebook post from Aug. 23, a heart-rending masterpiece of the written word in which Penny outlines the kidney disease that has been lingering in the background until the last year, when it decided to try to kill her husband. On Facebook, Penny Lowry apologizes for doing exactly what she’s doing: asking friends to consider donating a kidney.
“Orlando doesn’t want this to be all about himself,” Penny was telling me the first time we talked, “but let me be honest: I want a kidney for my husband.”
This story won’t be all about Orlando Lowry.
But every fight needs a face, and the fight for organ donation awareness couldn’t have a better face than this former Colt, this part-time UPS package handler, this high school football coach stalking the Park Tudor sideline with kidneys that work at less than 15 percent efficiency.
* * *
Here’s how it will work:
Orlando Lowry on one operating table at St. Vincent, his kidney donor – I have an idea who that will be, by the way – on a table across the hall. Transplant surgeon Islam Ghoneim will be with Lowry, his partner Dr. Alvin Wee with the donor.
The procedure was designed at the Cleveland Clinic – St. Vincent’s transplant partner – and starts across the hall. Dr. Wee will go into the donor’s abdomen with a scope, verify that the kidney is as usable as imaging has shown, and give the signal to proceed.
Across the hall Dr. Ghoneim will open up Lowry and prepare the site for the new kidney. Once the vessels and tissues are ready – “the hook-ups,” Dr. Ghoneim says – he’ll give the signal.
Across the hall Dr. Wee will remove the donor’s kidney, place it in a stainless steel tray – over ice, under sterile coverings – and give the signal.
Across the hall Dr. Ghoneim will receive the tray, wash the kidney clean of blood and excess tissue, and give Orlando Lowry his new organ.
“From donor to recipient in about 20 minutes,” Dr. Ghoneim says.
* * *
The NFL didn’t want Orlando Lowry, which didn’t stop him. Didn’t stop his older brother, either. Quentin Lowry played at Youngstown State, got drafted in the 12th round by the Dallas Cowboys in 1979, got cut. Went to Canada. Got released. Wouldn’t take the hint.
Quentin Lowry tried out for the Redskins in 1981, made it. Still has his Super Bowl ring from 1982. Life told him no, and Quentin said: Watch this.
Just like his older brother.
Martin Lowry – older than Quentin by four years, older than Orlando by eight – played college basketball and coached at a high school in Cleveland. When diabetes took his leg, Martin Lowry wore a prosthetic leg and kept coaching. Kidney disease came next, putting him on dialysis for eight years. On Dec. 22, Martin Lowry went into the dialysis center and didn’t come out. Heart attack, right there on the chair.
Quentin Lowry has been on dialysis since January. Orlando Lowry, the Park Tudor coach, will start dialysis in days. Doctors will insert a catheter Monday into his abdomen, allowing him to flush it out. Four times a day, he’ll do this. Every day. At home.
A strong man, this guy. Undrafted in 1984, last player cut by the Redskins, Lowry tried out a year later for the Colts. He played here from 1985-89.
Then he was selling insurance. He wanted better family benefits than his insurance job provided – ironic, right? – so he took a part-time job at UPS, starting at 4 a.m. He still has that job. Turns out he needed those UPS benefits more than his family ever did.
* * *
“Here’s the shocking news,” Dr. Ghoneim is saying. “All we need with today’s technology and medicine is a compatible blood type. It’s not like on TV where the miracle match is found and everyone is hugging. If you’re compatible, step forward and your kidney will work.”
Give me a number, I tell the surgeon. If blood type is compatible, what are the odds the kidney transplant will work?
“Seventy percent,” he says.
So encouraging. Which makes the following so discouraging:
About 110,000 Americans need a kidney, but the average wait is five years. Every day, 12 people die waiting.
There aren’t enough donors, simple as that, though the wait at St. Vincent (22 months) is manageable. A donor can be anybody, Dr. Ghoneim is saying. Family, friend, stranger. Last year there were more than 5,000 so-called “Good Samaritan” donors, people who donate a kidney to nobody, to anybody.
Like the pre-op nurse at St. Vincent. For years she prepared transplant patients for surgery. One day she did more, Dr. Ghoneim told me. She donated a kidney to help someone. Anyone.
Seven people responded to Penny Lowry’s Facebook post, by the way. They offered Orlando a kidney.
So did Cameron.
* * *
Cameron Lowry is 25, the second of Orlando and Penny’s four children. He lives in Durham, N.C., a recruiter for a headhunting firm, and he’s just like his dad. Played football at Ball State. Same big, rangy body. Same mannerisms, gentle nature, willingness to debate life’s biggest topics, like LeBron (Cameron’s pick) or Kobe (Orlando).
“My mom calls him ‘Orlando’s clone,’ ” Penny says.
The first child to hear about Orlando’s kidney disease was their daughter at IU, Lauren. She called Cameron.
Cameron called Orlando.
“I’ll give you a kidney,” he said.
“Of course it made me cry,” Penny says. “Orlando, too.”
Orlando told him no, of course. He won’t accept help with the lawn. A kidney from his son? No chance. Orlando was talking to his nephrologist about Cameron’s offer, calling it out of the question, when Dr. Christopher Wickman said kidney donors live longer than non-donors – a combination of their enhanced health awareness and emotional satisfaction – and then told Orlando:
“If you don’t have it, you will die – and your son wants you to live. I can’t think of a better way to honor your son.”
Orlando relented, and Cameron got tested. He has the right blood type, making him the likely donor. Penny also was tested as a match – and made the 70-percent cut – and then went to Facebook seeking more candidates. The odds are in her favor, but you understand. This is her husband we’re talking about.
“I love Orlando so much,” she says. “I’ll do anything to help him.”
As for Orlando, he’s coming to grips with the attention.
“The bigger picture is that it will raise awareness and help other people,” this private man was saying, after I asked permission to tell his story. “So I guess what I’m saying is, write your story.”
Will do. And it will end with stuff Orlando Lowry doesn’t know I know, stuff he wouldn’t volunteer, stuff I learned at Park Tudor’s game last week against Scecina during a lightning delay that sent fans inside the UIndy basketball arena. One parent told me about a senior last year, big kid named Robert who didn’t play sports but was spotted by Lowry walking the halls. Lowry invited him to play.
And Robert, bless his heart, was no natural. But he tried so hard, and Lowry got him into three games. And in the playoffs, late in a 56-22 victory against Cloverdale, Lowry put him in. A tipped Cloverdale pass fluttered toward Robert, who intercepted it, and Orlando Lowry was jumping and the Park Tudor sideline was screaming.
“Rob-ert, Rob-ert,” they chanted.
That was a year ago, before kidney disease got good and angry with Orlando Lowry. Robert is gone, a freshman now at Purdue, but he’s just one story I heard that night about Orlando. I heard about a single mom’s son named Kenny, a kid with a bad hip whom Orlando helped find a college scholarship. I heard more, and every story had the same theme. He gives, and gives, and gives.
Now it’s time for someone to give to Orlando Lowry. If Cameron can’t do it, if Penny can’t, somebody else will step forward. Maybe someone who read that Facebook post, or someone who read this story. Maybe someone who wrote it.
You can help
To become an organ donor, visit the DonateLifeIndiana.org website or call (317) 222-3414. To inquire about becoming a donor for Orlando Lowry or anyone else at St. Vincent, call St. Vincent Renal Transplant Services at (317) 338-6701.