Clay Moorefield knew his friend needed help. And he believed he was the right person – maybe the only person – for the job.
With Omar Foster in kidney failure and in desperate need of a transplant, Moorefield went to the man he considers a brother and offered one of his own kidneys.
“I didn’t trust anybody else with giving him a kidney,” says Moorefield, a personal trainer and co-owner of a western Pennsylvania gym. “I know where my body’s been. I know what I put in my body. I know how I get physicals every year … I know everything’s excellent. It was just numerous factors that all came into play. And the main one was hoping that he can have a quality of life.”
The happy ending didn’t come easily, as Foster originally declined the offer. But Moorefield insisted. He didn’t take no for an answer. And after the March 30, 2018, transplant, Moorefield helped Foster through the process of recovery and building his body back up.
The two still work out and spend quality time together, but their relationship is more than friendship. They’re bonded by more than blood.
“We’re just family,” Foster says. “He’s a part of me, and I’m a part of him. One of his organs is in my body, and I can’t find a word to explain more.”
‘We Just Became Brothers Almost Instantly’
Foster and Moorefield met at a religious service in 2008, and they felt a connection almost immediately.
“We just became brothers almost instantly,” Foster says. “Through our first gathering and getting together, we started doing things: going out to eat, things like that, hanging, talking all the time on the phone, meeting each other at service every Friday. Our bond just kind of grew from there.”
It grew into a family bond more than a friendship – Foster’s parents consider Moorefield a son, and Foster’s children call Moorefield an uncle. Eventually, Moorefield became certified as a trainer and opened a gym, and that added another relationship with Foster: workout partners.
That’s how Moorefield began noticing his friend’s declining health.
‘It Didn’t Seem Real to Me’
Foster was working as a union painter for his uncle’s company when he cut his finger in 2015 and went to the hospital for stitches. But as part of the physical examination, clinicians discovered what Foster calls a “sky-high blood pressure” and diagnosed him with hypertension.
More tests revealed that Foster was in kidney failure, with function at around 30 percent. The news surprised Foster, who hadn’t been experiencing symptoms.
“I didn’t have a clue,” he says.
Foster’s doctors hoped a course of medicine might stabilize his kidneys, keeping him from needing a transplant. But despite various drugs, his kidney function kept declining. When it sank below 20 percent his doctors told him they were going to place him on the transplant list.
“It didn’t seem real to me because I never really felt sick, and I just was in my head, like, ‘Whatever, I’m fine – I don’t need a kidney transplant,’” says Foster, who still was working and going to the gym at the time. “I guess it just never really settled in on me.”
It did sink in to his family and friends, especially as Foster began to show symptoms. Overly fatigued, he was napping twice a day for hours at a time. He found himself short of breath. He couldn’t go through his workouts the same. And eventually his kidney function dropped to 12 percent.
Foster’s doctors recommended Foster get a fistula – a connection between an artery and a vein in his arm to provide better blood flow for dialysis. He refused it: “I was in denial,” he says now.
Although dialysis is one treatment for kidney failure, transplants are most effective. And because the standard wait time for a kidney transplant can take up to five years, UPMC actively promotes live donations from family members, friends, and even strangers.
“It’s by far a better option for them short term and even long term,” says Amit Tevar, MD, surgical director of UPMC’s Kidney Transplant Program, who treated Clay and Omar. “It allows them to actually get a transplant without doing the standard of wait time.”
Moorefield stepped in for Omar. Knowing his friend needed a transplant, Moorefield researched the risks and benefits of donating. He talked to his family about it and prayed.
“Once I prayed about it, I got an ease about it,” says Moorefield, adding that his brother was willing to donate a kidney to Foster if he couldn’t. “This is how close he is with my family. It was kind of special. When that happened, in my head, that was a sign that it was meant to be.”
Another sign: Moorefield has blood type O, the universal donor. And he wasn’t about to let Foster talk him out of the procedure.
“It wasn’t that big to me because I just believe that if you love somebody, there’s certain things that need to be done,” Moorefield says. “It’s almost not an option.”
Adds Dr. Tevar: “Clay, keep in mind, is really the most altruistic, giving, generous person that anyone would have the pleasure of meeting. And really, he was determined that this was going to happen.”
‘It Gave Me Strength’
The procedure took place March 30, 2018, shortly after Moorefield’s birthday. Moorfield says Foster tried to talk him out of donating up until the day of the procedure.
“I was a little nervous, you know,” Foster says. “I started worrying a little bit, just thinking about both of us because I just wanted both of us to be good and come out of there healthy. He was excited, so once I saw that … I was like, OK, all right, I guess I need to cheer up a little bit.”
The procedure went smoothly for both men, and then the recovery began. Moorefield said he felt little pain from the surgery, although he felt some weakness in his abdominal area. After about six to eight weeks, he began to return to the gym to get his strength back up.
Just as he does with his own clients, Moorefield focused on incremental gains.
“The difference was finding where my abilities were once they diminished,” he says. “I really think I’m really an elite level type of fitness person, so actually having to start over, it was kind of difficult. But understanding the whole process, I was like OK, but I had a desire to get back to where I left off at. So that was one of the motivating forces.”
Another motivating force was Foster, whose recovery was slower because of the nature of his procedure. Moorefield wanted to reach his full capacity so he could help Foster through his recovery.
“Watching him be able to go to work and be able to do little stuff in the gym and things like that, that was really important,” Foster says. “It gave me strength, and it also gave me the courage.”
Because Foster had staples in his abdominal area from the procedure, he couldn’t begin working out again until three months post-surgery. Moorefield created a plan for him, and they started working out four to five times a week.
“I was just so looking forward to that date, me and him to get back together in the gym and work out,” Foster says.
Dr. Tevar dubbed them the “Gym Bros.”
“They actually came in with a goal of being the best and quickest to recover,” Dr. Tevar says.
The “Gym Bros” started slowly in their rehabilitation: calisthenics, push-ups, pull-ups, and dips. But Foster knew he was on the path to recovery simply because he didn’t feel the exhaustion he experienced when he was sick.
“To have that person just going through the recovery with me, it just made me want to be a leading example,” Moorefield says. “That he can actually see somebody that’s gone through the exact same, the person that actually gave him the kidney going through the same process with him.”
‘A True Blessing’
More than 18 months after the surgery, everything is going well for both Foster and Moorefield. Their biggest initial worry was rejection. There’s been no sign of that.
Foster says Moorefield regularly checks in on him to make sure everything is going well, including after doctor appointments. He’s doing everything he can to make sure he stays healthy, including diet and exercise.
“There’s definitely a major blessing, and I definitely don’t want to let myself down, (or) my wife and my children down,” Foster says. “And I don’t want to let him down in any way. And I always see his concern.
“It’s been over a year. We haven’t had any problems. I haven’t had to treat the kidney with anything. It’s just been a true blessing.”
Dr. Tevar holds the “Gym Bros” up as a shining example of live donation.
“These two have kind of grown together with this process,” Dr. Tevar says. “And really, it was a lot of fun to take care of both of them. But most importantly, I think it was great for them to come in with the idea that they’re going to do well afterwards, very quickly. And they did just that.”
In more ways than one. Foster and Moorefield remain as close as ever, as do their families. And they continue to work out together – maybe even better than before.
“Since the surgery, he actually does a lot better with my style of training,” Moorefield says. “I joke with him a lot. I tell him that, ‘You’ve got a Ferrari engine inside you now.’”
Living Donor Transplants at UPMC
With hundreds of thousands of people nationwide waiting for a kidney or liver transplant, living donations have become crucial. Living donations can help cut the wait times for people on the transplant list and help reduce organ shortage.
The UPMC Liver Transplant Program is one of the oldest and largest in the United States. UPMC ranks first in the country in living-donor liver transplants. UPMC surgeons have performed more than 1,000 living-donor kidney transplants since 1988. The Hillman Center for Pediatric Transplantation at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is the oldest pediatric transplant center in the country and has performed the most pediatric transplants.
In living kidney donations, surgeons take one of a donor’s two healthy kidneys and transplant it into someone with kidney failure. In living-donor liver transplants, doctors transplant part of a healthy adult’s liver into a recipient with liver failure. The donor’s liver then regenerates within a few months.
Living donors can give to friends, family members, or strangers, provided they match for blood and tissue and have a healthy organ.
“The friends that you meet at the gym or at your gin rummy club or at church, these are people that could potentially be a donor,” Dr. Tevar says.
Because liver and kidney failure are terminal diseases, living donations save lives.
“I’m always touched by the altruism of your neighbors and your friends and your family,” Dr. Tevar says. “I get to see this miracle happen every week, and the first thing that donor asks as soon as they get up out of surgery, as soon as they’re coming out, is, ‘How did the recipient do?’ And it’s moving to see.”