The question Jon DeChambeau has been mulling for weeks is the one he can’t answer.
Not until the next time he sees Mike Watney, wraps his arms around his friend and finds the words.
How do you thank the person who’s giving you a kidney?
How do you thank the person who’s giving you a kidney?
“Haven’t figured that out yet,” DeChambeau says. “I imagine it’s going to be emotional. We correspond daily now but haven’t actually gotten together.
“I’m going to hug him, and I don’t know how I’m going to let go.”
Through their longstanding ties to the local golf community, DeChambeau and Watney have known each other for years.
Jon was a professional for 18 years who became golf operations director at Riverbend Golf Course (since renamed Dragonfly GC). He’s also the father of newly minted PGA Tour pro Bryson DeChambeau.
Mike spent 35 years as men’s golf coach at Fresno State until his retirement in 2013. He’s the uncle of five-time PGA event winner Nick Watney.
They’ve been friends, albeit not particularly close ones. Until a few weeks ago, they didn’t have each other’s cell numbers.
“We’re much better friends now,” Watney says with a laugh.
I have two kidneys. The good Lord above gave us two, maybe to test us to see if we’re willing to share.
Everything changed for both men when Watney read a story by Clovis Independent editor Farin Montañez in the March 23 edition of the paper, timed to National Kidney Month.
One of the main subjects, DeChambeau spoke frankly and candidly about his decades-long battle with diabetes that has led to a litany of health issues, including open-heart surgery, having all the toes on his right foot amputated and, in May 2014, kidney failure.
The 56-year-old has been on some form of dialysis ever since, hooked up to a machine that does the job of filtering his bloodstream of toxins that his kidneys no longer can.
Watney, despite knowing DeChambeau for years, didn’t know any of this.
“My wife showed me the article,” he says. “I read it and went, ‘Oh my gosh!’ ”
DeChambeau already has spent two years on the wait list for a kidney transplant. However, doctors have told him it could be another three to five until his name reaches the top.
The only way to speed things up is if a family member or friend donates a kidney, either directly or through what’s called a paired exchange program.
If the donor and recipient aren’t a blood-type match, as is the case with Watney and DeChambeau, the donor gives his or her kidney to an unknown patient who is. The recipient then receives a compatible kidney from someone in a similar situation.
“It’s a kidney swap, if you want to use common language,” says Dr. Hemant Dhingra, president of the Fresno Nephrology Kidney Foundation.
Jon will be in a VIP line of living donors.
Dr. Hemant Dhingra
In 2014, 17,107 kidney transplants were performed in the United States, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Of those, 11,570 came from deceased donors and 5,537 from living ones.
Only a small fraction of the living-donor donations – Dhingra estimates 10 percent to 20 percent – were through paired exchanges.
“It’s kind of new still but getting more popular for obvious reasons,” Dhingra says.
With one healthy kidney, a person can lead a normal life. A person with zero is severely limited. DeChambeau goes to dialysis treatments thrice weekly for four hours at a time, a tether he likened to “a part-time job.”
An hour after setting down the newspaper, Watney knew what he had to do: DeChambeau needed a kidney, and he was going to donate one of his.
“It wasn’t really that hard of a decision,” Watney insists. “I have two kidneys. The good Lord above gave us two, maybe to test us to see if we’re willing to share.”
Watney, who must undergo a rigorous physical, believes himself a good candidate. His heart rate is perfect. His blood pressure and cholesterol are low. He doesn’t take regular medications.
Aside from some recent skin treatments on his sun-weathered face, he is the picture of health.
“I truly have been blessed,” Watney says. “I have never had a test where they said, ‘Oh, better watch this.’ ”
Why would a healthy 65-year-old man volunteer to go on the operating table and have one of his own organs removed?
Why would a healthy 65-year-old man volunteer to go on the operating table and have one of his organs removed?
Because he’s not thinking about himself.
Bryson DeChambeau – one of golf’s brightest young stars, having won both the U.S. Amateur and NCAA Division I championships in the same year – is about to embark on a new adventure as a PGA pro.
With a healthy kidney, Jon would get to experience it, as well.
“This is life-altering for him,” Watney says. “I know how much fun it is to be able to go out there when you have a son or nephew playing, and I wanted him to have that.”
DeChambeau and his wife, Jan, made the trip to Augusta National Golf Club for last week’s Masters, but Jon’s medical needs often took precedence.
Instead of watching the first and third rounds in person, DeChambeau watched on TV from a local clinic while undergoing dialysis treatments. Even the two rounds he attended were a struggle. Hampered by multiple foot surgeries, he negotiated the hilly course and jumbo-sized galleries with help from a knee scooter rented from a medical supply company.
“Helping a friend is the least I could do,” Watney says.
If I didn’t know the person, it probably wouldn’t pop into my head, but it’s different if it’s a friend in need. That’s life-altering for him.
A decision like this isn’t made in a vacuum. Watney had to talk it over with his wife, Paula, and consider the needs of their four children and six grandchildren.
What if one of them, in the future, needed a kidney?
But Watney’s mind was made up. He wanted to give this gift of life. Watney didn’t have Jon DeChambeau’s cell number, but he had Bryson’s, so he sent the 22-year-old a text that went something like, “Hey, think your dad would want an old man’s kidney? I’d be willing.”
Bryson then contacted Jon, who was floored by the news. He and Jan spent a long time talking it over before reaching out to Watney.
Jan DeChambeau previously had offered to donate her kidney, something Jon refused.
“I told her, ‘You can’t.’ You need to be there in case either of our sons or any of our grandkids needs it,” he says. “It would kill me to get a kidney from her and then have my son have kidney problems. It just would. I don’t think I could mentally deal with that.”
17,107 kidney transplants performed in the United States in 2014
Jon and Mike spoke for the first time about the donation, which has not been scheduled, before the DeChambeaus departed for the Masters. Back in Augusta, the story got out – it was written about in Golf Digest and mentioned on the Golf Channel – before Watney had a chance to tell his kids.
Watney sent them a group text, which daughter Heidi Watney received while riding to work for her job as host of “Quick Pitch” on MLB Network in Secaucus, N.J.
“It all happened so fast,” she says. “You get a text message saying, ‘Before you hear it in the media, I’m donating a kidney.’ You’re like, ‘Excuse me?’
“That’s not something you hear every day.”
While caught off guard by her father’s selfless gesture, Heidi Watney isn’t surprised.
“That’s just who he is,” she says. “He’s a strong Christian person who lives his life the way people should. I couldn’t be prouder.”
I’m going to hug him, and I don’t know how I’m going to let go.
Jon DeChambeau, on the next time he sees Mike Watney
DeChambeau, who has become a spokesman for the Fresno Nephrology Kidney Foundation after years of keeping his medical conditions private, is still blown away by his friend’s life-changing gift.
Watney and DeChambeau keep in touch daily but haven’t seen each other since golf became their second-most important connection.
When it does happen, tears will surely flow.
“Obviously Mike’s a face in the community, and for someone like him with his reputation to offer me, this is pretty special,” DeChambeau says. “I’m not quite sure how to handle that one. I’m getting emotional just talking to you about it.”
Fresno Nephrology Kidney Foundation
Founded this year, the foundation is a nonprofit that raises funds for dialysis costs, kidney disease education and kidney transplants for families throughout the Valley.