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Co-workers bond over kidney donation and more

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ST. LOUIS - It is the story of a remarkable bond between co-workers, just made even more remarkable.

An Ameren Missouri lineman has just donated to his long-time work partner.

The two men from Ironton, MO, (about 90 miles south St. Louis) now share a job, a kidney, and a big place in a special woman's heart, that 12 years ago was broken into pieces.

Jeff Gottman, 53, and John Savage, 41, spent their last day before their living donor surgery, working together.  Their outward appearance was calm.

That was hardly the case.

“Oh yeah, (we’re) anxious nervous,” the men agreed.

With Jeff’s kidney function down to 12%, friends and family started getting tested to see if they might be a donor match.  John was.

His decision to be Jeff’s donor had John’s sister, Christa, beaming.

“I’m not surprised but I’m very proud,” she said.

Christa, John’s sister, is also, Christa, Jeff’s husband.

She lost her first husband to a tragic work accident in 2007.

John introduced her to his friend, Jeff, a few years later.

Christa and Jeff got married 7 years ago.

“He’s saving our life together, as a family.  It’s a big deal,” she said.

“Probably about 17 years I’ve known him,” Jeff said.  “I’ve been kin to him the last 8.  It’s amazing that he’s willing to do this.”

“He was my friend, long before he was my brother-in-law.  It just so happens, when it came time, it was an easy decision.  I was just lucky to be a match for him,” John said.

“That’s a ‘brother’s keeper’,” Jeff said.  “He’s a hero.”

With family at their side, they rolled into Barnes-Jewish hospital in St. Louis the next morning.

Jeff’s surgery lasted 4 hours.  John’s lasted.

Their operating rooms were next-door to each other.

“We operate at the same time,” said Dr. Jason Wellen, a transplant surgeon for Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine.  “So, the minute the donor kidney comes out, we hand it to the recipient surgeon, who then walks it to the other room and puts it right in.  This way they go in within 20-25 minutes, so the kidneys work very quickly.”

Both men were up and walking the next day.  John, the donor, went home that day.  Jeff went home the day after that.

They are at least a couple of months from returning to work but recovering well.  Jeff and Christa, now grandparents to a little guy named Gus, have great days ahead.

She wants their story known in part because of something that has stuck with her from the tragic loss of her first husband.

She was bluntly asked about organ donation as she was reeling from grief, minutes after he died.  They’d never discussed it.  He did not sign his driver’s license.  He was not a donor.   12 years later, her brother’s a hero.

“And I look back and think how different I would have thought 12 years ago,” Christa Gottman said.  “It would have been a completely different answer had I known then, what I know now…I’m extremely proud of my brother.”

From his hospital bed holding back the tears that were filling both of his eyes, her husband Jeff agreed with Christa about her brother, John.

“Ah, he’s top-notch,” Jeff said.

They hope their story leads to more organ donations.  Barnes-Jewish Hospital will perform about 300 kidney transplants this year, about 85 from living donors, which is up 30%, Dr. Wellen said.  The best results come with living donors because they go through screenings and their kidneys are typically the healthiest, he said.

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