“What on God’s green earth am I doing? Why would I want to give a healthy organ away to anybody?”
Howell and Bryon Dockter ’76 never crossed paths during their respective times at Concordia. Dockter, who is about six years older, began a career in the healthcare industry following graduation. He became a registered nurse, taking on a patient-care role. Howell also chose to enter the healthcare sector but on the financial side of operations. The two eventually met in 1987, as CEOs of hospitals in rural North Dakota. During the next 30 years, their paths continued to cross even as their jobs took them farther away and their Concordia connection served as a foundation for their blossoming friendship.
“That ‘class ring thing’ instantly connected us to Concordia, but we also saw the world, our jobs and careers, and maybe our personal missions and visions through similar lenses,” Dockter says. “The more we talked, the more we had to talk about.”
As their careers took different roads, the two remained close friends, vacationing with each other’s families, serving on executive boards together and each becoming consultants for people with disabilities. Their mutual values and passion for healthcare kept the two in touch and connected, but in 2017 their connection was about to become a much deeper one.
Eating lunch together one day, Dockter dropped a bombshell, informing Howell that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 renal failure and would be heading to the University of Minnesota to become one of 95,000 people to be placed on a waiting list for a kidney transplant. Dockter, who has type 2 diabetes, had been experiencing an evolving health-related journey that resulted in the development of chronic renal disease, or CKD.
This conversation set in motion a six-month journey that would change the two friends’ lives forever. That night, Howell took it upon himself to take an online survey about living organ donations and conduct some research on renal failure and the treatment options that were available. He learned that less than 40% of kidney donations were made from a living donor and that donations made from a living person lead to better health outcomes for both the recipient and the donor. He also found that 13 people are removed from the donation list every day because they did not survive long enough to receive a functioning kidney.
Believing that his chances of moving to the next stage of the donation process were slim, Howell was surprised to receive a call from the University of Minnesota requesting they take a blood and urine sample to test for donation compatibility. One physical examination, 17 tubes of blood and two gallons of urine later, the doctors determined that he had high-functioning kidneys and was eligible to donate. The odds that he would be giving his kidney to his friend continued to grow.
“The next day, I received call from the University of Minnesota,” Howell says. “Congratulations! You are directly compatible with Bryon. Please give us a call.”
Howell’s wife, Lori, was not a “fan” of her husband’s situation but gave him the freedom to choose whether or not he would continue on this journey. It was at this point, with the decision of whether to donate one of his healthy kidneys to his friend in need, that he experienced an intense sense of doubt.
“I lost sleep, couldn’t eat, didn’t ask anyone’s opinion and prayed,” he says. “And then the ‘what if’ questions came into my mind. What if something goes wrong? What if my recovery is longer than normal? What if I can’t be a healthy 58-year-old anymore? What if I die?”
One night, Howell heard his mother’s voice.
“Danny, if you’re ever in a position or privileged enough to help somebody, regardless of the risk, you’ve got to do it. Because that’s the reason you’re here.”
On May 17, 2018, Howell and Dockter underwent successful kidney transplant procedures. Howell’s kidney started working immediately once inside his friend’s body. In fact, Dockter’s transplant coordinator indicated that he had never seen two people so genetically compatible given that they were not related.
The friends’ connection now runs much deeper than their respective times at Concordia, but they acknowledge that where they came from has made an impact on the lives they live today.
“We believe in ‘service above self’ and the idea of servant leadership that was instilled in both of us during our times at Concordia,” Howell says. “There is an instant connection when Bryon or I meet a fellow Cobber. The core beliefs that we were taught in the ’70s and ’80s are still evident in all the Cobbers that we meet today.”
Dockter and Howell hope to raise awareness about living kidney donations with the goal that more people will undertake the process that led to their successful transplant. In late 2018, Howell spoke of his journey at TEDx Omaha.
“Our mutual goals,” Dockter says, “are to 1, help people understand that living kidney donation is a viable option and 2, that the most important thing is to tell your story of need.”