by Helen Adams, MUSC, video by Emma Vought and photos by Sarah Pack
If the traffic light hadn’t turned red when it did, a Greenville father known as a “gentle giant” wouldn’t be recovering from lifesaving surgery. A Clemson police officer and Army veteran who loves helping people might never have taken on the new title of good Samaritan. And their joyous meeting at MUSC Health in Charleston wouldn’t have taken place.
But fortunately, that light did turn red. And when that happened, a young woman on her lunch break was right behind a pickup truck with a big magnet on the tailgate.
It showed two adorable children with their bearded, smiling father, Thomas Banks, and the words, “Our daddy needs a kidney transplant!” It included a phone number and web address.
“Something told me to take a picture of it. It was the least I could do,” Taylor Brantmeier said. “I posted it on Facebook and Twitter.”
She also shared it with her boyfriend, 24-year-old Clemson police officer Zack Yasin. Like Brantmeier, he was moved by the children’s plea. “I went on Facebook and shared it, too,” he said.
But Brantmeier was shocked by — and proud of — what Yasin did next.
“Within 15 minutes, I was like, ‘I’m healthy. I can do it. And I’ll recover well,’” Yasin said. He wanted to donate one of his kidneys to Banks.
Banks’ situation was dire. The 43-year-old construction project manager’s kidneys had “given up the ghost,” as his wife said. The cause was unclear — possibly from something as simple as an attack from a common cold years ago. What was clear was that he needed a new kidney, and quickly.
But Banks wasn’t one to sit around and feel sorry for himself. He kept going to work every day, managing construction projects around Greenville. When he came home in the evening, he hooked up to a dialysis machine that did what his kidneys no longer could. For nine hours a night, while he slept, the machine removed toxins, ensured he had a safe level of important chemicals in his blood, and controlled his blood pressure. Banks unhooked just in time to get ready for work the next morning.
His illness took a toll on his family. “One of the things we enjoy doing as a family is going camping. That’s difficult to do if you have to be hooked up to a machine at night. We haven’t been able to do that in about two years.”
Friends worried, too. Charlie Hanna, a former roommate at Presbyterian College who once backpacked across Europe with Banks, decided to do something about it. “I wanted to get the request for a living donor for Thomas in front of as many people as possible. I looked online and saw what people did. I think I literally Googled, ‘How to get a kidney.’”
That’s how he got the idea to create car magnets. “I wanted to get it in front of as many people as possible,” Hanna said.
Family and friends were happy to attach the magnets to their cars and trucks – anything to help Banks in his quest for a donor.
Hanna was at work when his longtime friend sent him a text that stopped him in his tracks. “The only thing it said was, ‘The magnets worked. I have a donor.’”
Relief washed over Hanna. “I completely lost it at work. I just walked outside and kind of sat in the grass for an hour and called people to let them know.”
Things went pretty quickly from there. Banks worked with physician assistant Zachary Sutton at MUSC Health’s transplant clinic in Greenville to get ready. Sutton happens to have been a good Samaritan donor himself, having given a kidney to a stranger 12 years ago. He said until recently, surgeons had to travel to see potential transplant patients around the state. “Now, MUSC Health has sites throughout South Carolina with full-time providers. There’s one in Columbia, one in Florence and the one in Greenville, where I work.”
Yasin had to get ready, too, undergoing an extensive workup at MUSC Health in Charleston to make sure he was a good match for Banks. The Living Donor Program facilitator he worked with, Lilian Jarvinen, was able to speak with him not only as a transplant professional but also from personal experience. She, too, was a good Samaritan donor, giving one of her kidneys to a stranger in 2017.
In fact, the experience was so profound for Jarvinen that it led her to a new career, helping other donors. “Donating a kidney was the best thing I ever did, and now every day, I get to see the wonderful outcomes for not just recipients but also their families,” she said.
When it was time for surgery, Banks, Yasin and their families and friends traveled from the Upstate of South Carolina to Charleston for surgery at MUSC Health, which has one of the largest kidney transplant programs in the country. Its surgeons perform more than 200 kidney transplants a year.
The men hadn’t met but had communicated on Facebook. While their loved ones waited, surgeons removed one of Yasin’s kidneys and placed it in Banks.
The next day, Yasin was the first to arrive in the hallway where he would finally meet Banks and they would ring a bell together to signal their successful transplant. He was smiling as he talked with his girlfriend and his mother. Then Banks came, dressed in a hospital gown and pulling an IV, with a smile on his face, too.
“How are you doing?” Yasin asked.
“Doing a lot better,” Banks answered. “So far, so good. I hear I got a really good kidney,” he joked.
They laughed, talked some more and then rang the bell as their friends and family members cheered.
“I just think it’s important that people understand how big it is what Zack did. I’ve told him thank you a hundred times, and I could tell him a million more, and it’s not enough. He said, ‘Man, I just like to help people. That’s why I do the job I do.’” – Thomas Banks, kidney recipient
Banks’ wife teared up. “I’m just overwhelmed. I appreciate it so much,” she told Yasin.
“I wish I had more kidneys to give out,” he said, to more laughter.
Banks’ father stepped forward, too. “As the dad, thank you for the gift of life. That’s what it is.”
The next day, Banks was feeling even better. “I’m obviously sore from surgery, but that’s to be expected. My energy feels better. I don’t feel sluggish. My brain feels clear. I don’t feel like I have brain fog constantly, which is wonderful.”
He said he was looking forward to going camping again with his wife, their 10-year-old daughter and their 7-year-old son. And Banks marveled at Yasin’s generosity, which made all of that possible.
“I just think it’s important that people understand how big it is what Zack did. I’ve told him thank you a hundred times, and I could tell him a million more, and it’s not enough. He said, ‘Man, I just like to help people. That’s why I do the job I do.’”