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NSU’s DeFord and Yankowski bonded for life over kidneys

Matt DeFord's illustration of kidneys pre-op
Matt DeFord's illustration of kidneys pre-op(Matt DeFord / NSU)
Published: Aug. 19, 2021 at 3:12 PM CDT
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NATCHITOCHES, La. (NSU) - Two Northwestern State University art professors are bonded for life after Matt DeFord donated a kidney to his long-time friend and mentor Michael Yankowski, an act that both agreed was sanctioned by divine intervention.

The two have been friends since DeFord joined the faculty at NSU in 2005.  The surgeries took place at the John C. McDonald Transplant Center at Willis Knighton North in Shreveport July 16. With the procedure a month behind them, DeFord and Yankowski were recovering at home in different ways.  DeFord is on medical leave until Aug. 30.  Yankowski will be on medical leave the entire semester and is checking up with his doctors twice a week. Both were following orders from their physicians and from their wives, Julie DeFord and Joanne Yankowski.

NSU Professors of Art Matt DeFord, left, and Michael Yankowski ran into each other at a...
NSU Professors of Art Matt DeFord, left, and Michael Yankowski ran into each other at a follow-up doctors appointment two weeks after DeFord gave a kidney to Yankowski, his long-time friend and mentor.(NSU)

Speaking via Zoom, the two discussed healing, maintaining a sense of humor in the face of pain and how this act of generosity affected them and their families. The discussion has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Yankowski:  Matt, you look comfortable.  Are you lying in bed?

DeFord:  I’m in bed. I still can’t sit up for very long.

Yankowski:  Well, it is exhausting. My appetite is still a little wonky.  There are certain things I can eat and can’t eat.  Of course, by the time I’m done taking 30 pills, I’m full.  I’ve got to stretch them out over about 12-hour or 24-hour period and I’ve got to drink so much water, I’m always full. Full of pills and water.

DeFord:  When I walk and sit down for a little while, I’ll just start sweating because of the pressure going on.  It’s my ab muscles because they went right through my abs. Since I came home, I’ve lost about 25 pounds and I think a lot of it is muscle. I think about where I was four weeks ago and I’m so thankful for healing.

Yankowski:  My worry is all about whether the kidney survives. These antirejection drugs, that’s what most of the pills are, because I can’t be exposed to anything or it could reject. But they said I got this Mercedes Benz kidney from you. I told them, “Man, he’s a Mormon.  He doesn’t drink.  He doesn’t drink coffee.  He eats healthy. He’s perfect. A 48-year-old guy.’ I traded up.

DeFord: I wasn’t sure if they would do it, but I have pictures, if you want.  I don’t know if I told you, Yanko, but I put on Facebook, ‘I have a picture of my kidney, which is a beautiful kidney apparently, and I will Message it to you if you want.’ And there were about 30 people --

Yankowski:  That wanted to see it?  They are -- what do you call it -- gawkers at an accident. They took a picture of it going into me.

DeFord:  That’s the best picture. It’s got your open cavity. That’s the gross part, but it kind of shows the shape better. He said it was a beautiful kidney.

Yankowski:  I didn’t know I had a kidney problem until about two years ago. I went up to the Northwest Nephrology Clinic. They looked at the biopsy reports and said ‘We’re putting you on the list today. You’re going to need a kidney, if not now, soon.’  It takes six years to get a normal kidney by the time you go through the wait.  You’re waiting for a cadaver. That’s when I started to think this was pretty serious. I never really talked about it to anybody because I felt great. I never felt ill. But I talked to a few people that might be concerned and I figured, ‘Matt’s department head.  He should know what’s up.’ So, I just casually mentioned it in the hallway. I said ‘By the way, it looks like I’m going to need a new kidney.’ As I recall, Matt said, ‘Wow, that’s pretty interesting.’ And he came back the next day and said, ‘Well, I’ve been thinking about it. I’ll do it.’  Just like that. Then he asked me my blood type.

DeFord:  They had the LifeShare bus on campus and I went to donate blood and get my blood type and it turns out I’m a universal donor.

Yankowski:  Then we both had to go through a bunch of tests [for tissue compatibility] so we both had that done over the next several months. Finally, they said, ‘Well, you’re a good one, and, holy smokes, Matt came to bat.  He’s a superhero.

DeFord:  I had to go through a lot of prayer, too, because I’ve got a lot of kids. I guess I’ve learned different ways to talk to the Lord and I just said ‘Look, if I’m not supposed to do this, don’t make me a match.’ I felt like if I was a match, I had a responsibility because my health is good and his health is good except for the kidney, so I knew that it would be a success both ways because he would take care of my kidney and I would take care of myself afterwards.  I thought ‘Why not? Let’s just do this.’ I’d hate to see Michael on dialysis. When he went in for the procedure, Michael had 13 percent kidney function.

Yankowski:  I’m on the way out the door right then. And they left those old ones in. They’re still there. They’re still doing a little bit of something but not much and I’m sure eventually they will break down completely. I’m now at 53 percent.  It’s all positive.

DeFord:  That’s so good.  You make me cry, Michael.  I’m so glad.

Yankowski:  My wife Joanne is my coach and my warden. You can’t do it if you don’t have a significant helper and she tracks everything. We go to the doctors and she takes notes and keeps the charts and then comes home and reviews the charts and tells me where I stand.

My family didn’t know [about the diagnosis] because I don’t usually talk about myself that much.  I think I mentioned it to my brothers, and they said ‘Well, you probably don’t want mine.’ They are older and they just didn’t have the healthy kidney like Matt. But they are so grateful.  Everybody’s so grateful for Matt. Now, we’re brothers.  My brother says now you’re his brother, too, because of this addition to my family.  Little Matt is what I call it.

DeFord:  Is it the Frank Sinatra song ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin?’ I’ve been under his skin for years. It made me feel really good when I got interviewed by the dietician. She came out of the room and yelled into the hallway, ‘This is the best candidate we’ve ever had!”

Yankowski:  They said that to me, too! It was good timing and it just all worked out perfectly.

DeFord:  I’ve heard from his whole family. I’ve received cards and flowers and all sorts of things.  It’s been really humbling. When I came home, I knew it was going to be hard, but I didn’t realize how hard.  The first few days were really difficult. I came home and this big bouquet of flowers came, a huge, beautiful bouquet, and it was from Michael’s two daughters and I just busted out crying.  I thought, ‘He’s a dad and a grandpa.  I’m so glad I did this.’ Hearing from his brother and his sister was humbling.

Yankowski:  I broke down when I saw the picture of the kidney. Holy smokes. I just couldn’t take it. Quite the blessing.  Anybody who does this is a hero, but to know the friend -- a personal friend -- and have it just work out?  All these coincidences were divine intervention.  Everything seemed to fall right into place. The timing, health-wise, the markers, everything. There is a certain virus that about 60 percent of the population has in their system and we both have it. Because we both have this virus is another way to be a match. And it’s ecumenical.

DeFord: I was hoping you would say this.  Explain why it’s ecumenical.

Yankowski:  Well, my nephrologist is a Hindu.  He said I’ve got great karma, because I have all these friends. He said, ‘Whatever you did well is coming back to you.’ Matt is a Mormon.  I’m a Catholic.  My surgeon was Egyptian and his surgeon was a Kurd and I think they both must be Muslim, so it’s like ‘Let’s all get together.’

DeFord:  Bring the world together. I love that.  I have to bring up Julie because I was really emotional afterwards, too, because it’s a really hard thing and I was so amazed at how everything went. One day when we were still in the hospital and I was like ‘I could not have done this without you.’ She stayed with me the whole time at the hospital.  She took good care of me.  She made sure I was getting up and walking when I didn’t want to.  She makes sure I don’t overdo it.  I kind of went over her head a little bit. I said, ‘Hey, Michael needs a kidney and I’m going to go get my blood tested.’  Once it was a match she said, ‘Are you going to do this?’ and I said ‘Let’s give it a try.  I hope it’s OK with you. I don’t have any history of problems in my family like that and you don’t either and our kids probably don’t, so it should be OK.’  The doctor told me I just can’t get stabbed or shot in that area anymore.  I have to watch out for muggings.

Yankowski:  There is a backup.  If you donate an organ, you go to the top of the list if you need one. So there’s that -- but who wants to go through that?

DeFord:  I didn’t tell my kids until it was for sure and we were going to go for it. I didn’t want them to worry. I’ve had little kids in the house for a long time but now is the perfect time because I don’t have any that are going to run and jump in my lap. The timing was perfect also because I just stepped down as head of the department.

Yankowski:  Joanne is really super.  She’s right there and she makes it happen.  She takes me twice a week to the doctor. If I need something she goes and gets it and puts up with me when I’m a little grumpy – well, little is an understatement. Joanne is a positive person. I wake up and she’s smiling and says, ‘What do you need?’ and takes care of me and nags me if I don’t drink enough water and nags me about remembering my vitamin.  She’s right there. Apparently, as grumpy as I am, it’s better than me not being here.

DeFord:  We’d rather have you grumpy than not here.  Michael takes new faculty under his wing and has been my mentor this whole time. Even when I was head of the department, he would come in and mentor me.  He’s been a part of my kids’ lives, too. They know him, my parents know him.

Yankowski:  What goes around comes around.  You’re a good friend and you’ve paid me back.

DeFord:  He was probably head of my tenure committee, too.

Yankowski:  I certainly was.  I was on the committee to hire you and knew we had a winner. I didn’t hire you just for your kidney, honestly. I didn’t know about it back then. We’ve been good friends and we work well together.  It’s a very tight department, too. All of us are supportive of each other and the university was very helpful.  Matt’s got the tougher end because, even though I go to the doctor twice a week, he can’t do sit ups.  He won’t be hiking the Appalachian Trail anytime soon. But everything aligned. It was God’s intervention, step by step. I never really had any worries about it.  I just thought it was going to work.

DeFord:  I didn’t have any worries either.  I just went forward.  People asked, ‘Are you nervous?’ I got nervous when they put the IV in me and rolled me into the operating room.

Yankowski:  Me, too. That was the only time I got nervous. It’s all such a blessing when you think about what happened to me with Matt’s help.  It’s a miracle. I’ve got everybody in the community praying for me, through my church, through the Knights of Columbus, through acquaintances and at Northwestern.  Holy smokes, I can’t go wrong with all this support.

Matt DeFord's illustration post-op
Matt DeFord's illustration post-op(Matt DeFord / NSU)

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