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The Brothers Knight

By Nathan Coker
In Bayou Profile
Jan 1st, 2014

KnightBro DEC13
In the season for giving, the Knight brothers know a thing or two about making the ultimate sacrifice for family.
article by
Michael DeVault | photography by Martin G. Meyers

Robert Knight remembers watching what happened to his twin brother, Jonathan, in the weeks and months after Jonathan’s kidneys failed. “I saw my brother go from a relatively healthy to someone who lost fifty pounds with no quality of life whatsoever,” Knight said. Three times a week, Jonathan reported to a dialysis center to have excess fluid and toxins pulled from his blood, a painful and debilitating process that left Jonathan weak.

Jonathan had to stop working because of the treatments, which required most of the day each Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Tuesdays and Thursdays were reserved for recovering from the treatments. The way dialysis works, a port is installed into an artery in the chest. A second port is installed into a vein in the arm. The dialysis machine pumps the patient’s blood through the machine, which filters out excess fluid and other contaminants. Jonathan said that, at the height of dialysis, his treatments averaged between three and five hours.

“The main issues were you’d go in at 180 pounds. What they call your dry weight would be 165 pounds,” Jonathan said. In other words, the machine would work until it had removed fifteen pounds of fluids and materials from his blood. The treatments itself caused nausea and high blood pressure. “You feel pretty terrible at the end of the treatments,” Jonathan said.

Jonathan had been on the transplant list almost a year, but no compatible organ had been found. Watching his brother undergo dialysis day after day prompted Robert to take action. “The transplant list didn’t go anywhere,” said Robert. “So it soon became, ‘Hey, if he needs a transplant, I’m going to be the one who has to give it to him.’”

There were a lot of considerations for Robert to question. First, he had a small child at home, a son, and wondered what might happen if, one day, his son needed a kidney.  Also, there were other considerations. A live-donor transplant not only requires a medical match, it also requires certain social and economic bars to be met. The donor faces a recovery time, lost work, altered lifestyles. In many ways, the impacts on the donor are larger than on the recipient.

Even the surgery to harvest the donated kidney is difficult. And there are risks, too. But once the decision was made, Robert said he never second-guessed himself. Also, he knew the consequences of inaction.

“At a minimum, he’d still be on dialysis today,” Robert said.

So the twins set about finding the best possible treatment. They settled on the Cleveland Clinic, a world-renowned transplant hospital. Getting in and getting the transplant done would take weeks.

Robert and Jonathan’s support community turned out in a big way. Their parents made the trip to the clinic with them. Also, the pastor of their church and two deacons drove from Rayville to Cleveland—more than 18 hours one way—to sit with the family during the surgery. Robert’s wife and son did not make the trip, though, because his son was too young at the time.

Robert remembers the moment the entire ordeal came into focus for him. “It’s not really real until they strip you down, you put on that robe, and you’re lying on the hospital surgical bed,” Robert said. He wrote a note to his son on his iPhone, a “just in case” against the worst.

But the worst did not happen. Instead, his brother recovered almost immediately. Following the transplant, Jonathan did not need further dialysis treatments.

Recovery moved quickly for Robert, too. After a brief post-surgical stay at the Cleveland Clinic campus, Robert returned home. “I came back and I was working part time the day after I came home,” said Robert, an attorney who practices in Monroe.

Jonathan sometimes has trouble coming up with words to describe what Robert did for him. Instead, Jonathan talks about how the ordeal changed their relationship. “When we were little kids, we did everything together. We were each other’s play mates,” said Jonathan. The two grew apart in high school, where one became more athletic and the other fell into a more artistic path. Their relationship changed after the transplant. “I think we’ve gotten back to that point when we were young,” Jonathan said. “We do a lot more things together. We check in with each other. We go on trips together.”

Patsy Knight said she’s not surprised that her sons are closer. Nor is she surprised Robert decided to give up a kidney to his brother, even though he deliberated for a long time. “Everything he does he takes a long time to decide about,” Patsy said of Robert. But, ultimately, she said she knew he would decide to donate. “It was very unselfish, giving life to another person,” Patsy said. “Jonathan would have died.”

Patsy recognizes the change in her sons’ relationship, too. They’re closer today than they were before Jonathan’s kidneys failed. “They spend quite a lot of time together, talking. I think they’re each other’s sounding boards,” Patsy said.

Robert agrees.

“He’s my best friend,” Robert said. “I’d do anything for him. I think, if the situation were reversed, he wouldn’t hesitate to do the same for me.”

Three years after the transplant, the brothers continue to be close. Also, they are telling people their story in hopes that other people will consider organ donation as a means to save lives. “If this prompts just one person to think about donating a kidney, then it’s worth it,” Jonathan said.