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He's Got a Ticket to Ride

“THIS IS UTAH STATE UNIVERSITY IT, what's your blood type?”


“Hey, got a kidney I can borrow?”

Can't really ask that one either.

But every time another cyst bursts, every time such an exquisitely incapacitating event shoves him in the hospital for another lengthy stay and snuffs out more zeal for new projects and blunts his brain and energy and puts a little more blood in his urine and robs another permanent chunk of kidney function, Bob Bayn '75 MS, '82 Ph.D. jokes about saying things he knows he never could. So what if the humor feels a tad inappropriate; he's in a fight against genetics, a “slow and gradual, miserable end of the road.”

“I need a kidney,” he types. Only this time his thoughts cross into reality — a no–joke wiki post — and this time he actually hits ENTER.

When she was 58 or 59, a little younger than Bayn is now, his grandmother dies of what is deemed “blood poisoning.” A maternal aunt passes her final years on dialysis; a maternal uncle actually receives an early kidney transplant but dies of post–op complications. When Bayn's younger brother, Dennis, is given a thorough physical and ultrasound that reveal cysts on his kidneys, Bayn rightly concludes his own mother must have had them, too, and that it's time for him to get an ultrasound himself. He's 37 and yup, he has polycystic kidney disease. He's already witnessed way too much of his future.

There's comfort, though, in the fact that Bayn's mother lives to be 81 and that PKD seems to present itself in different ways to different people. Over the next 20 years, in fact, Bayn is monitored closely but continues building his life. He gets 20 years to ride his bike around and to become something of a campus celebrity for sustainable transportation. But 15 years ago blood tests begin pointing to his health heading south — still just data, really, and OK because “for whatever reason we have a lot more kidney function than we need,” he reasons. And then two years ago Bayn's 40–mile bike rides become “a little more daunting,” and then 20 to 25 miles is good enough, thank you very much, and soon the thought of leaving campus over lunch is unbearable because of that blasted hill climb coming back.

Bob Bayn is dying on his gradual, miserable road.

“It's just a matter of physical exertion,” he says. “You know, hiking, snowshoeing in the winter, biking in the summer, those types of things. My range and my endurance are just shrinking — kind of rapidly.”

Bayn, who coordinates USU's IT security team, is suddenly in need of a little backup assurance himself. “I need a kidney,” he types. Only this time his thoughts cross into reality — a no–joke wiki post — and this time he actually hits ENTER.

OK, easy enough; now that the family secret's out why not splash Facebook, too?

“O–positive kidney needed.” ENTER

And it hurts to laugh now — thankfully less than bursting cysts hurt — but Bob Bayn belly–buckles when he hears himself say Facebook is the vehicle through which his eventual rescue arrives.

Yet there she comes, Stacie Gomm '89, '93 MS, '05 Ph.D., once an associate vice president of IT and former colleague of Bayn's, now guiding impressionable, tender lives as a middle school vice principal in the Cache County School District. Stacie Gomm, who checks Facebook maybe once a month, but has never been any good at ignoring things, especially such a succinct plea as was this.

“Bob, what's up?”

And it surprises him — workplace acquaintances so transiently lost and all — but he's an information guy and he can certainly pass on a couple of links. Because, let's be honest, the days of catch–up conversation are gone.

“I look it up and it's amazing,” says Gomm. “I can't believe that he's been suffering from this disease for this long.” And she recognizes her next step as merely one she is able to take, “a chance to do a good service.”

So in the beautiful bluntness that is online blurbing, Gomm types a pronouncement of her own: “I'm O–positive; I hear I have an extra kidney.” And her world instantly expands.

And Bayn refers Gomm to his donor coordinator in Salt Lake, the same contact to whom at least nine others have gone, including one of his wife's relatives, six high–school classmates from 1968 Michigan and a couple of anonymous altruists who, because of HIPPA rules, are just going to have to channel his gratitude from afar. And the prize for passing Test 1 with the coordinator is a chance to experience Test 2 with the coordinator and Gomm cruises to about Test 45 she figures and doesn't say anything to her family, thinking, “Well, we'll see what happens.”

In the meantime, though, she rides her bike. She rides, she trains and with some friends she relays Lotoja, the classic 206–mile autumnally beautiful and grueling one–day race from Logan to Jackson Hole. And all that time in the saddle produces the early makings of a dream, a promise to herself to one day bag Lotoja on her own, no segments, no teammates, all of it under her own power. Which, of course, are exactly the kinds of plans you want your kidney donor making if you are Bob Bayn — or anybody else — because how could anybody ask for a cooler kidney in all the world than one that will power a pedal to Jackson Hole?

“You take somebody dinner, you don't think about it for three days afterwards. Somebody needs a kidney, you give 'em a kidney and that's it.
—Stacie Gomm

So strong is Gomm the candidate, in fact, that she breezes past the blood work and urine tests and multi–page medical histories and quickly arrives at the point where it's time to “start thinking more seriously,” about this whole deal and time to start talking to members of her family. And sure — some are shocked. Imagine. “I have family members who don't even give blood,” she says. And how could her husband not struggle with such a seemingly random act of kindness, a gesture sure to steal some of her iconic strength, at a minimum, and maybe leave Stacie a little less Stacie. “He cares about me and he cares about our family, he's very worried and that's his job,” she says. “So I'm very thankful he worries.”

And here's something else to imagine: teenage daughters might cry in public while proclaiming from the rooftops how cool their mom is and fourth–generation Aggie freshman daughters might call out of the Aggie Blue someday and say, “By the way Mom, I don't think I ever told you how proud I am of you,” when you donate a kidney. They do that. And you might just hold on to those things far longer than you hold onto the memory of the pain of not being able to roll over in your sleep post–op and having to wake up and use your arms for lack of abdominal strength.

And isn't it interesting, the way that just such imaginings also become a significant part of the struggle for Bob Bayn, who, in the course of redefining pain, realizes that he's not going to escape it on his own and that this curious world holds others who will help — help him? One of those high school buddies, his self–proclaimed advocate, in fact, calls up and says, “Sit down, you're not going to believe this, but they've given me permission to tell you. So sit down.” And sure enough into his ears and straight to his heart come the names of people he hasn't even thought about in 40 years, people having already contacted his donor coordinator, already willing, if not perfectly able, to take one, for Bob. And he hasn't anticipated that knee–buckling part of this fight and he truly, humbly is “surprised.”

In fact, it's the epiphany that enables Bayn to begin accepting the completeness of what Stacie Gomm is offering; a lesson that can be taught perhaps only by miserable, cyst–lade kidneys. He's eventually forced to embrace the reality that his is a dire need, that there are people, with reasons of their own, willing to help meet that need, and that he “should just be grateful.” But still he sobs. “Expect isn't even the right word,” Bayn says, “I wouldn't have looked to any of these people for help.”

Even more interesting then isn't it, that Gomm, ever the pragmatist, looks to help everyone? “I can do this and why shouldn't I,” she asks. “There's no reason why I shouldn't.” And it really seems as though it's no grand gesture, no existence–defining choice. “You take somebody dinner, you don't think about it for three days afterwards. Somebody needs a kidney, you give 'em a kidney and that's it,” she says. “I wish I had another kidney to give, I really do. I wish that I could do it for more than one person. I can't.” But even so her gift comes with just one stipulation: If she clears the final test, please can it all happen over Christmas vacation because, in her new job, she has built up zero annual leave.

And Gomm is not yet the official donor when Bayn and his doctor begin discussing dates for his kidney removal. But function has deteriorated past his personal point of no return and one way or the other, they've got to go. Dialysis will have to suffice. And it's a strange exercise to plot on paper one's own organ removal, but for Bayn perhaps stranger still to now be plotting hope and a future. He doesn't want to cut things too close, he'll leave a little wiggle room for contingencies, but he needs at least a month to recover from this initial surgery before he can undergo a transplant. It's down to details now, excruciatingly vital details, and he can't love his wife enough for helping him to keep a long–range focus on the one big goal.

So on November 2, Bob Bayn loses two crummy kidneys on the hope of receiving one splendid kidney in return. By Thanksgiving his brother, Dennis, receives a transplant of his own, and by Christmas, friends and family are carrying meals in to a single–kidneyed Stacie Gomm, because they can — because when others need a little help, stepping up just seems like the right thing to do.

“People can do this,” Gomm says. “I hope it works for Bob. I hope he gets to do all that he wants to do; I hope it extends his life.”

But for Bayn, Gomm's gift has already gone far beyond that. With his blood chemistry almost immediately back in check, he feels “more alert, more aware, more ready to think about things.” And he isn't joking when he says, “I can look forward to …”

Verbs and nouns, dreams and faces; Bob Bayn's thankful list is “surprisingly and gratifyingly huge.” And at the very top is a fellow cyclist, off now chasing new dreams of her own.

—Jared Thayne '99