Early on a summer morning, the prairie grass is wet with dew, the birds are singing and the snow-capped Indian Peaks shimmer to the west as two men pedal up a hill near Boulder while training for the Transplant Games of America.
The incline grows steeper. The cyclists pedal harder, and the younger man rides up beside his friend. He reaches over, grips the back of his buddy’s bicycle seat and gives him a little boost up the hill.
Reaching out to help comes naturally to Scott La Point, 54, who met Jim Eastman, 68, through support groups for survivors of traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Years earlier, each had suffered devastating injuries: La Point when he was cycling and a truck plowed into him and threw him 72 feet, and Eastman in a car crash that sent his SUV tumbling end to end, then nearly twice side to side.
‘Husband needs kidney’
The men had met before, but weren’t close when Eastman needed some help with his Longmont TBI support group. He lives nearby in Niwot. La Point recently had moved back to Colorado after earning his doctorate in psychology and came from his home in Loveland to help moderate the meeting. He had no idea that in addition to his TBI, Eastman was coping with kidney disease that was leaving him feeling worse and worse.
After the meeting, as the men walked to their cars, La Point saw a sign on the back of Eastman’s wife’s silver Subaru. It read: “HUSBAND NEEDS KIDNEY.”
On the spot, La Point offered to donate one of his.
“Jesus gave his life for me. I can give you a kidney,” he said.
“There’s something about a TBI that makes us family,” La Point explained. “You know the journey they’ve been on. You know the hurdles they’ve had to overcome. I’m a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of guy. I’m very spontaneous.”
La Point’s wife needed a bit more convincing since the couple has three young boys, ages 13, 11, and 8, and she didn’t want her husband taking undue risks. Her father, who is a doctor, researched transplants extensively and reassured her that kidney donation is quite safe. La Point endured months of testing to be sure he was a match. Then, on the eve of the first scheduled surgery in February of 2017, a mysterious pulmonary infection derailed the transplant. Fortunately, La Point recovered and doctors gave him the go-ahead to proceed a few months later.
Transplant Games ‘like the Olympics’ for organ donors and recipients
Just over a year ago, on June 29, the men traveled to UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital for surgeries that would change their lives.
Now Eastman feels better than he has in years.
“It’s a blessing to have energy and to be able to do what my mind and body wants to do,” Eastman said.
“It’s the proverbial ripple in the pond. He has no idea what he’s done,” Eastman said, reaching over and gripping La Point’s shoulder. “I love this guy.”
The feeling is mutual. The men are like brothers now. On the 29th of each month, the date on which their transplant took place, they do something special to celebrate life.
“We’re good together,” La Point said. “We complement each other.”
Their wives and families have bonded. And La Point insists he’s the one who received the greater gift.
“My only regret is that I don’t have a third kidney to give,” La Point said. “A new and better life begins after donation.”
Both men continue to support others with TBIs. They love cycling. Eastman rides with a group called Seniors on Bikes, and yes, they call themselves the SOBs. La Point hiked up Pikes Peak 10 weeks after the surgery and has participated in two 100-mile bike rides since donating his kidney. He’s become a dedicated evangelist for organ donation, routinely asking friends and strangers alike when they plan to donate their kidneys. Next month, the duo will travel together to the Transplant Games of America in Utah where both will compete in cycling and other events.
“I’m considering it like the Olympics,” said La Point, who loves competition and would like to win his age division in cycling.
“I’d like to come home with a medal and show it to my boys and reinforce the whole message of caring about others,” he said.
The men will compete in a 5-kilometer time trial, then a 20-kilometer cycling course. Donors and recipients compete separately and competitors are divided by age, so La Point and Eastman will not be racing against one another. They’re eager to encourage the organizers of the Games — which take place in the U.S. every other year — to create team events for donors and recipients so they can join together in competition as they have in real life.
While Eastman also has been training every day for the Games and would be happy to do well, he’s thrilled just to be healthy enough to ride his bike. And, he’s looking forward to the camaraderie in Utah.
“It will be cool to be around all of these wonderful, loving, blessed people,” he said.
Altruistic kidney donors vital to patients in need
Pomposelli said people like La Point are making a huge difference for those in need of transplants. Colorado has an especially large population of altruistic organ donors, people like La Point, who donate to strangers or others they barely know.
“Altruistic donors perform a selfless act that enables many more people to have transplants than otherwise would,” said Pomposelli, who is also a professor of transplant surgery for the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
“Now these men share a unique kinship and they’re bonded in their goals and aspirations,” Pomposelli said.
Currently more than 114,000 people need organs in the U.S. and nearly 95,000 of them are awaiting kidneys, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, or UNOS, the non-profit in the U.S. that oversees organ donations.
“Right now, living donors are a very important part of addressing the organ shortages,” Pomposelli said. “Living donors made up about 50 percent of U.S. kidney donors last year. Without them, we’d be falling even further behind in what we need.”
Thanks to living donors, kidney transplant surgeries at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital increased dramatically in 2017.
“It’s unique and special when someone is willing to come forward and help a friend or family member. You take it to the next level when you don’t know the recipient or they’re only an acquaintance,” said Conzen, who is also an assistant professor of transplant surgery at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
La Point is one of those very special people who step up, she said.
“It makes it possible for people to get off the transplant waiting list,” Conzen said. “There’s a severe shortage. Every year, there are people who die while waiting. Donating is truly a life-giving gift.”
Conzen said it’s been wonderful to watch La Point and Eastman grow close to one another, but also spark change for others in the transplant community, as they have done for so many years for people with TBIs.
They speak to other families who need transplants and serve as ambassadors within the organ donation community. La Point serves as a mentor and has helped raise thousands of dollars for the American Transplant Foundation.
“We need advocates like them to help pass regulations that support donors who have to take time off of work and away from family to make the dream of life possible for someone else,” Conzen said.
First a TBI, then kidney disease
Eastman’s life changed dramatically just three months after he married his wife, Ruthie, back in 1990. He had been a hard-charging, Type A district manager who ran a $15 million department for the chemical company, Monsanto. Eastman had decided to take some time off from work and was interviewing for a new job when an accident in Aurora changed his life.
The roll bar on his SUV saved his life.
Doctors in the emergency room assumed that he had escaped without serious injuries.
“They removed the glass that had ground into my hands and they sent me home,” Eastman said.
Few people talked back then about how blows to the head and whiplash could cause lasting damage.
Eastman got a new job as a manager, but found himself forgetting simple details and struggling to juggle complex challenges, which he used to love. Once, after running a meeting, his assistant asked why he had gone over the same agenda item twice.
Eastman had no memory of doing so.
“That scared me,” Eastman said. “I thought I was going crazy.”
Meanwhile, Ruthie felt like the man she had married was gone.
“I felt like our marriage was really struggling,” she said.
Eastman went to his doctor and described his symptoms. He happened to mention the car accident two years earlier.
“It sounds like a classic brain injury,” his doctor said.
Finally, Eastman learned he had suffered a TBI and started getting help from a brain injury counselor, a speech therapist and the person who proved especially critical: an occupational therapist.
“He saved my life. He said, ‘Jim, if you want to get healthy, you’re going to have to focus on one thing at a time.’”
TBI impact: ‘small tank of cognitive energy’
Eastman had a Master’s in Business, but knew he needed a professional re-boot in order to reduce his stress. He was good with his hands and decided to take a $7 an hour job as a plumbing apprentice.
Eastman describes living with his TBI this way: “I have a small tank of cognitive energy.”
Too much stimulation can overwhelm him and drain his cognitive tank.
“If I go shopping at King Soopers and everything on the shelves says, ‘buy me,’ and there’s overhead music, sometimes I come home with nothing.”
By learning to focus on one task at a time, Eastman found great success as a plumber.
While he transitioned to his new career and learned to make peace with his TBI, his health started declining. Eastman had visited the 9Health Fair for years and had saved his results. Out of curiosity, he plotted more than 15 years of lab results and noticed a trend: his creatinine levels — tied to kidney health — were climbing. Eastman asked his doctor about the trend, got tested and learned that his kidney function was declining. Thankfully, he had caught it early. In 2013, he went on dialysis, knowing that he’d eventually need a kidney transplant. That’s when the Eastmans made the tough choice to share their dilemma publicly. They participated in the UCHealth Living Donor Champion Program, where they learned that the quickest path to a kidney transplant was to find a living donor willing to give his or her spare kidney. In order to find that person, they would have to share their story.
First, Ruthie made posters and shared news that her husband needed a kidney on Facebook. Eastman also put a sign on his truck. Some family members and friends stepped up. About 10 went through testing, but weren’t accepted to donate a kidney. The sign on Ruthie’s car generated the most calls. But none had worked out until the day La Point saw it.
Determination leads to transplant
Eastman knew to be cautious when La Point offered his kidney so quickly.
“That’s great. I really appreciate it,” he said. “But it’s a long road to get approval. Don’t get too attached to the outcome.”
But La Point wasn’t about to give up. Tenacity is his forte. He needed plenty of it back when a truck mowed him down 25 years ago.
La Point was cycling on an old two-lane highway in Louisiana back in September of 1993. He was working at the time in Shreveport as a newspaper copy editor on the sports desk and described himself as a cycling addict at the time. Typically, few people drove on the road. But, on that day, a delivery truck came up behind La Point, apparently never saw him and barreled straight into him at approximately 60 miles per hour.
La Point was lucky to live, but faced a brutal recovery. He was in a coma for four days and in the hospital for nearly a month. His most severe injury was a right subdural hematoma or bleeding on the brain that can be deadly. Fortunately, La Point’s hematoma resolved without surgery. He also had a brain stem injury that led to the coma.
Along with the brain damage, the accident fractured LaPoint’s tailbone and his left humerus in his upper arm. A subsequent fall in the hospital bent the plate that doctors had used to repair his humerus, and La Point had to endure another surgery with a new plate and a total of 10 screws.
Perhaps most unsettling was the confusion and memory loss.
“I was in a fog for several months after my injury as things around me seemed surreal and I had difficulty understanding my injuries because I had about 30 days of post-traumatic amnesia, not recalling being hit and only small flash-bulb memories of my time in the hospital,” La Point said.
Despite the challenging recovery, La Point found blessings after the accident.
“It changed my life. It reduced the energy I spent focusing on me, myself and I. Afterwards, God gave me a love for a lot more people,” La Point said.
‘Everyone should be an organ donor’
When he was well enough, La Point started volunteering with TBI support groups, found a new calling, and decided to get an advanced degree in psychology.
Working with other TBI survivors brought deep meaning to La Point’s life.
For four years, however, he never considered getting back on his bike. Physically, he was recovering well and he had few lingering problems tied to his TBI.
But, he felt guilty cycling when other TBI survivors were suffering debilitating injuries.
“Here I was, able to feed myself and walk, while so many of my new friends were in wheelchairs,” La Point said.
“Then one day a cycling friend said to me, ‘Maybe God left you with your legs so you could ride for him instead of yourself.’”
La Point got back on his bike and for years, did cycling events to raise awareness and funds for people with brain injury.
Now, along with continuing to support the Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado, La Point is eager to keep dedicating himself to boosting organ donation.
“Today, I can ride for those with kidney disease who can’t,” La Point said.
And he keeps spreading his message that all healthy people can donate their kidneys.
“I think everyone should be doing it,” La Point said.
La Point and Eastman are excited to take their buddy act — and a profound message of hope — on the road to the Transplant Games of America.
“It takes a special kind of person to say, ‘yes,’ to be a living donor,” Eastman said, looking over at his friend. “To say, ‘I’m going into surgery with you,’ that’s a commitment.”
As usual, La Point pooh-poohs any praise.
“I’m not here for myself,” he said. “Giving a kidney to Jim helped me model that to my boys, and I have the opportunity now to share that message with others.”