PIKEVILLE, Ky. — Jody Thompson had known since 2007 his kidneys would inevitably fail. For reasons unique to his family, the former Kentucky Wildcats basketball player dreaded the prospect of needing a kidney transplant.
So when Dr. Ravinder Bhagrath told Thompson in September 2016, that the time for a kidney transplant was near, the sharpshooter made the kind of decision that can risk your life.
The Pikeville, Ky., banker, a married father of three daughters, chose to ignore his doctor’s words.
“I decided ‘I don’t want to deal with this. I feel fine, I’m OK, there’s nothing wrong with me,’ “ Thompson said.
He went months without visiting his doctor.
Polycystic kidney disease, a hereditary condition, has run in Thompson’s family for generations.
Thompson’s dad had PKD. His uncle, Tommy Thompson, required a transplant. “My dad’s dad had it. My children have a 50 percent chance of having the same issue,” Jody Thompson said.
PKD occurs when clusters of cysts develop primarily within the kidneys, causing them to enlarge and lose function.
Thompson, 45, was apprehensive about needing a kidney transplant because the hereditary nature of his disease meant blood relatives were pretty much out as potential donors.
He feared he would spend years on dialysis and waiting on an organ donation list.
Instead, Thompson received the gift of a life-altering act of Christian charity and empathy.
Another former 15th Region basketball star, someone Thompson had regarded as no more than an acquaintance, gave up a kidney for him.
It may not count as a Christmas miracle, but Thompson ate a bowl of blackberries last Dec. 25 — and it may have saved his life.
Seeds in the berries caused him to experience a case of diverticulitis. Acute stomach pain forced a bed-ridden Thompson into bargaining with God. “I said ‘If you will get me up out of this bed, I promise I’ll go see my doctor,’ “ Thompson said.
On Dec. 27 of last year, Thompson returned to medical care. Blood work was done.
Thompson soon got the news he had been dreading: Each of his kidneys was now functioning at less than 5 percent capacity.
“My nephrologist told me, ‘Had you gone another two or three months without coming to see me, it’s likely you would have fallen dead in front of your kids,’ “ Thompson said. “I’ll never forget that.”
Thompson had another reason to feel trepidation at needing a kidney transplant.
Because of polycystic kidney disease, his father, Roy Thompson Jr., underwent a transplant in 2004.
From his donor, he got more than a kidney. He also contracted non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In August 2006, the elder Thompson passed away from the cancer. He was 58.
“It was one of those things, you know?” Thompson said. “He had no choice but to do (the transplant). It just didn’t work out.”
Now it was Thompson whose name went on the waiting list for a kidney transplant at the University of Kentucky Hospital.
As Thompson took dialysis, people from his past — a long-time work friend, a pal from high school he had fallen out of touch with — stepped up to volunteer to try to become his kidney donor.
There was no match.
Then, via Facebook Messenger, Thompson heard from someone he remembered as one of the best high school girls’ basketball players in Pike County in the 1990s.
“Have you found a donor yet?” Samantha Cook wrote.
In the early 1990s, Thompson and Cook had been basketball stars at rival high schools.
A sweet-shooting 6-foot-5 swingman, Thompson averaged 30 points and 13 rebounds as a senior at tiny Feds Creek in 1989-90, carrying his team to the 15th Region finals.
He eschewed multiple scholarship offers and accepted a proposal from then-University of Kentucky basketball coach Rick Pitino that he walk on for one year at Kentucky in 1990-91 before going on scholarship for his final three seasons.
Alas, having grown up in Mouthcard (population of some 800), Thompson never seemed comfortable at a mammoth state university like Kentucky. After appearing in five games for Pitino, Thompson exited. He eventually ended up back in Pike County as a big fish in the NAIA pond (2,039 career points) at what was then Pikeville College.
The 5-foot-10 Cook was the starting center as a sophomore on a stellar 1989-90 girls basketball team at Elkhorn City that won the 15th Region championship and reached the Sweet Sixteen semifinals. After her senior year, Cook made the 1992 Kentucky Girls All-Star Team.
Since high school, Thompson and Cook had crossed paths only occasionally. Thompson’s oldest daughter, Skylar, now 15, had played basketball against Cook’s daughter, Alyssa. For a time, Samantha Cook coached a softball team for which Skylar Thompson played.
“I remembered her from high school, but gosh, we hadn’t really talked in 25 years,” Thompson said of Cook.
Now a Pikeville emergency room nurse and a married mother of two, Cook had been following Thompson’s deteriorating health situation via Facebook.
Cook said she believes God put it on her heart to try to help. She had grown up with two sisters. When she thought about Thompson’s three daughters possibly not having a father, “it really affected me,” Cook said. “I couldn’t stop thinking about what it would have done to my sisters and me if we’d lost our dad.”
Weeks after her first message to Thompson, Cook sent another asking if he had found a donor. Informed that he had not, Cook replied “ ‘Why don’t you give me a chance?’ “
Thompson thanked her, but did not say yes.
The emotions of accepting a gift so great as a person’s kidney are complicated.
University of Pikeville men’s basketball coach Kelly Wells has required two kidney transplants since 2004 due to Berger’s disease. “Essentially, you are asking someone to undergo surgery and risk their perfect health so you can have better health,” Wells said. “Emotionally, that’s a tough ask.”
When Thompson didn’t answer affirmatively her request to try to be his donor, Cook messaged him again.
“She said, ‘Listen, I really believe with all my heart God has asked me to do this,’ “ Thompson said. “Reluctantly, I sent her the phone number to the person there at the (UK) transplant clinic that she needed to call.”
Cook said when she told her husband, her parents and her children that she planned to donate a kidney, no one in her family tried to talk her out of a major elective surgery.
“They pretty much know when I get an idea in my head, I’m going to follow through,” she said. “For me, this was all about being in a position to help somebody who was in need. Why wouldn’t you do that?”
It turned out, Cook was a match.
On July 20, the surgeries that moved one of Cook’s kidneys into Thompson’s body were performed at the University of Kentucky.
As Cook was wheeled back to have her kidney extracted, Kari Thompson, Jody’s wife, saw worry etched in the eyes of Samantha’s sister, Sarah.
“I’m not going to lie, for me it had been about trying to save Jody,” Kari Thompson said. “But when I saw Sarah’s face, it hit me in a deep way how big a sacrifice Samantha was making for our family. I just started praying really hard for her. I still am.”
Both surgeries went off without complication.
Now, as Jody Thompson prepares for his first Christmas with his new kidney, he is still processing the changes that have resulted from Cook’s sacrifice.
The pressures of being a bank vice president and commercial lending officer no longer consume him.
“Work stress used to really bother me,” Thompson said. “Don’t tell my boss, but it doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it used to. To me, you do the best you can and you leave it at that.”
Family time has become much more of a priority.
“I spend more time with my kids,” Thompson said. “Not that I didn’t before, but I’m doing more now.”
What Cook gave Thompson and his family in July is a reminder that the most profound presents do not have to be given at Christmas.
“This is the ultimate gift, it really is,” Thompson said.
“I decided ‘I don’t want to deal with this. I feel fine, I’m OK, there’s nothing wrong with me.’” Jody Thompson, on his initial reaction to his kidney disease
“My nephrologist told me, ‘Had you gone another two or three months without coming to see me, it’s likely you would have fallen dead in front of your kids.’ I’ll never forget that.” Jody Thompson, former Kentucky basketball player