Recipient Frank Reeves now serves as an ambassador for kidney transplantation

Frank Reeves

Frank Reeves says he has two birthdays. The first was the day he was born 62 years ago, and the second was May 12, 1998 – the day he received his kidney transplant. Reeves’ difficult path to that second birthday began when he was 35 and serving as a police officer in Dothan, Ala.

“I likely had an undiagnosed birth defect,” Reeves said. “It caused urine to back up and destroy my left kidney and scar my right kidney.” Once diagnosed, Reeves had no choice but to undergo dialysis, which continued for 18 months.

The waiting game

For Reeves, peritoneal dialysis was a temporary measure while he awaited a donor kidney. The natural place to turn for a donation was his family. “My father had undergone cardiac bypass surgery, and my sister planned to have children at some point, so they weren’t able to be donors,” which left only his mother, he said.

“Mom went to UAB for match testing, and they found a malignant tumor on her left kidney,” Reeves said, adding that she subsequently had that kidney removed. “Had it not been for those tests, the cancer wouldn’t have been found. The cancer didn’t return, and she and my dad are both still with us; she’s 85, and Dad is 87.”

Reeves likens the wait for an organ to a long hallway. “You never know when that doorway at the end is going to open,” he said. “But once you walk through that door, it’s like you’re outside again.”

While on the waiting list for a kidney, Reeves went into end-stage kidney failure. Thankfully, on May 11, 1998, Reeves received the call he’d been waiting for and headed to UAB Hospital. There, he was cared for by UAB Comprehensive Transplant Institute (CTI) surgeons Arnold Diethelm, M.D. – who passed away in 2021 – and Carlton Young, M.D. “There are great people at UAB,” Reeves said. “Alabamians are fortunate that we have a top transplant facility in the U.S. right here. I’ve had a fantastic working kidney for 25 years. Transplantation is an amazing process and the most wonderful thing in the world.”

An ambassador for transplantation

Reeves reflects on the life he was able to live thanks to the generosity of his donor’s family. “I got to see my daughter graduate from high school and college,” he said. “I got to walk her down the aisle and watch my grandsons grow and thrive.”

Retired after 31 years with the Dothan Police Department, Reeves is now able to enjoy traveling around the country and the world with his wife, Jenny. He never takes that freedom for granted. “I know my donor’s name – their sister lived 20 minutes from me,” Reeves said. “The family is part of this process, and when they made the decision that gave me my life, they had just experienced a terrible loss.”

One way that Reeves honors his donor is by serving as an ambassador for transplantation. He raises money for the Alabama Kidney Foundation by participating in its annual Kidney Walk celebration, and he speaks at the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine in Dothan each year, sharing his experiences when he was waiting for a transplant.

In addition, Reeves is an avid participant in the Transplant Games of America, an event that brings together nearly 10,000 people from the U.S. transplant community to participate in 20 athletic and recreational competitions. “People participate in swimming, bowling, golf, running, you name it,” he said. “To stand next to a runner who received a double lung transplant is mind-boggling.”

The year after his 1998 transplant, Reeves was the only person representing Alabama at that year’s Transplant Games, held in Ohio. In 2024, the Transplant Games will be held in Birmingham July 5-10. UAB Medicine will help sponsor the event by serving as the presenting medical partner, and Reeves is working on the Steering Committee to help ensure that the event is a success.

Reeves also attends the annual Celebration of Life Picnic, which is sponsored by Legacy of Hope, Alabama’s organ procurement agency. Held at UAB in April of each year, the picnic celebrates transplant recipients, living donors, donor families, and supporters. “Everybody has a story,” Reeves said. “It’s up to us to live the best life we can after transplant. That’s what our donors and their families would want for us.”

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