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Tom Brady highlights need for kidney donations

When the Super Bowl ends Sunday, win or lose, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is likely to exchange texts with one man.

When Brady was 12, he met Tom Martinez at a football camp at the College of San Mateo in California and has sought the coach's assessment of his performance after every game in his career.

But in December, the conversation turned from the NFL star's skills to Martinez's health, after Brady learned that Martinez was struggling on dialysis and awaiting a kidney transplant at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Brady fired off more messages, this time to fans on Twitter and Facebook, asking for someone to donate a life-saving organ. In a little over a month, about 400 people — mainly strangers — responded with well-wishes and offers to get tested to be a donor. Martinez's doctor at Hopkins expects a donor match in the next month or two.

"It's unbelievable for me to think a stranger would be willing to take their kidney and give to another stranger," said Martinez by phone from California during one of his four-times-a-week dialysis sessions. "It really warms my heart. It's all because of Tom."

Martinez said he will be thrilled when a match is found and he can fly to Baltimore for surgery. But what's more important to him is that Americans understand how many people are hooked up to dialysis machines every day and how many die waiting for a donated kidney.

About 90,000 people are on the national waiting list, according to the National Kidney Foundation. About 20 percent will get an organ this year from a live or deceased donor; about 30 percent are likely to die eventually because no organ is available for transplant.

Officials at the Kidney Foundation and at Hopkins say the publicity generated by Brady will be hugely beneficial.

"The public hears the message of the life-saving power of organ donation when there's a moving personal story told — either that of a friend, family member, colleague or that of a celebrity," said Ellie Schlam, a spokeswoman for the foundation.

Brady has spoken publicly many times about Martinez and recently told the Associated Press, "A lot of people are looking for kidneys or some different type of transplants, but [Martinez] is very deserving. He's a great man."

On Dec. 30, Brady mentioned Martinez's plight on his Facebook page, generating 2,726 "likes" and 406 comments. The comments say such things as, "If I'm a match, I'm more than happy to help."

The post urges people to register at matchingdonors.com which connects those in need with those offering a kidney. So far, 10,455 people are registered.

A match still eludes Martinez, but several people have gone to Hopkins for testing, said Dr. Robert Montgomery, director of the Comprehensive Transplant Center and chief of transplantation at Hopkins.

He expects that outpouring of offers to yield a kidney for Martinez — and for others on the waiting list.

"We're in a terrible bind, and I'm very pleased that this is receiving a lot of attention," Montgomery said. "For sure, increased awareness will mean there will be some transplants other than Tom's."

Montgomery said it's a tough life for those on dialysis, the process of removing waste from the blood when kidneys can no longer perform. Patients can feel depleted and weak, and often can't work. They live half as long on average as those who receive a transplant. The operation has become one of the more frequently performed transplants and is increasingly successful.

Time on the waiting list is a major factor in determining who gets an organ from anonymous donors. Living donations from strangers, called altruistic donors, became more prevalent in the late 1990s.

Government data show that about 9,200 people received kidneys from deceased donors and about 4,730 got them from live donors across the country in 2011.

Those with family or friends willing to donate can have immediate transplants. People like Martinez can also jump to the front of the line when they have a donor they don't know, so long as the donor is willing. Donors must be in good health and have blood type and tissue compatibility.

Martinez has diabetes and hypertension, two top causes of renal failure, and they have worn down his kidneys over four decades, Montgomery said. The failing kidneys have affected his heart. The doctor believes Martinez won't last much longer on dialysis and needs a transplant soon. No one in his family and none of his former players who have come forward is a match.

If a kidney is found, the procedure would be done at Hopkins, which specializes in difficult transplants. Martinez likely would remain in the hospital for a month while he recovers.

The hospital can remove kidneys through a less invasive laparoscopic procedure, meaning that the donor would likely stay in the hospital only two days, go home without pain medications and return to work in two to four weeks.

"This guy is very nice and has a very compelling story," Montgomery said. "He's coached a lot of players. They call him 'the Quarterback Whisperer.' And now he needs something."

Martinez spent 42 years teaching in California high schools and community colleges, and won 1,500 games before he retired in 1997, a record in the state.

Martinez said he always told his players, "Never quit, never surrender and play until the game is over."

That got a lot of players through rough patches, including Brady, whom Martinez calls a perfectionist.

But when doctors told Martinez that he might not have much more than a month to live without a transplant, he said he was shocked and felt sorry for himself.

Then the messages from former players started coming.

"They told me, 'Coach, don't give in. Don't quit,'" he said. "It's not easy, but I won't quit."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

To donate

For information on donating at Johns Hopkins Hospital, call 443-287-0134, email livingdonation@jhmi.edu or go to hopkinsmedicine.org/transplant/living_donors

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