When You Give a Friend a Kidney

“From the moment I thought Scott might need a kidney, it was just a given to me that I was giving him mine.”

Wenjia Tang

Every week, The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week, she talks with a trio of friends about the time one of them gave another his kidney. Scott Moore was diagnosed with a life-threatening kidney disorder in 2015. Dustin Lehmann offered up his kidney from the moment he heard of Scott’s illness, and last summer, after having been deemed an excellent match, he donated one of his kidneys to his friend. They recovered side by side in Scott’s living room. Dustin, Scott, and their close friend Brandon Knisley, who witnessed it all, discuss the origins and growth of their friendship, and how they weathered the uncertainty and despair of Scott’s sickness, and the joy of Dustin’s life-saving donation.

The Friends

Brandon Knisley, 37, a fundraiser for a girls’ school in Memphis, Tennessee
Dustin Lehmann, 34, a consultant and freelance writer who lives in Cincinnati, Ohio
Scott Moore, 57, the principal trumpet player for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra in Memphis, Tennessee

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Julie Beck: How did you guys meet and become friends?

Brandon Knisley: I was brought down from Chicago to Memphis to work with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra in management. Scott and I met right away during one of my interviews, but really where we became friends was as classic adversaries. We were negotiating a union contract, sitting on opposite sides of the table. I was management and he was labor. He was the chief negotiator for the orchestra and I was the chief negotiator for the symphony. We respected each other—we were both pretty transparent and straight-up, and through that process we started hanging out at a local bar and we just hit it off.

Scott Moore:  I’m just obsessed with golf. I play golf a lot and will go practice a lot at this park in midtown Memphis. It was pretty much winter, 40 degrees, kind of damp. So I’m clearly the only person out there practicing most days. And then all of a sudden I see this other guy there for several days in a row. Dustin and I were clearly the craziest golfers in Memphis, so we introduced ourselves and swapped phone numbers.

I think the first time we played a whole round it started raining. The temperature kept dropping. But neither one of us wanted to say, “Maybe we should call it off.” And I wound up getting pneumonia. Which is not a good thing for a trumpet player to get. But we're still friends anyway.

Scott Moore, Dustin Lehmann and Brandon Knisley. (Courtesy of Brandon Knisley)

Dustin Lehmann: I think Scott arranged either a round of golf or we all met for beer or something and Brandon and I hit it off right away as well.

Beck: So basically you each met Scott on your own, and then Scott matchmade you into a threesome of friends.

Scott: Matchmaker of threesomes. That’s going on my tombstone.

Brandon: Dustin moved to Cincinnati less than a year after he and I met. Dustin and I knew each other for a really short amount of time before he moved and we both said that makes no sense. Because we are really close to each other but have spent a surprisingly short amount of time in each other’s physical presence.

Scott: My schedule was such that I sometimes don’t work during the day at all. Especially in the summer. The orchestra doesn’t work in the summer. So Dustin and I, we would play golf just about every single day in the summer. And then Brandon, he has some clubs. He'd come play with us.

Brandon: Dustin and Scott golfing, me losing golf balls. I’d say the big thing that probably took the friendship to another level, though, really did happen through this Facebook thread. This online conversation.

Beck: Tell me about the Facebook thread. What kind of things do you guys talk about? How often are you on it?

Dustin: In 2013 I went to Cincinnati and we just started up this thread as a way to keep in touch.

Brandon: It runs the gamut. A lot of it is just pointless banter and complaining, sharing jokes throughout the day. But all three of us are interested in politics and ethics and things like that, so we get into a lot of pretty deep policy discussions. Sometimes Dustin and I have pretty heated exchanges about different opinions on things.

Scott and his dialysis machine, photoshopped into a scene from Young Frankenstein. (Courtesy of Scott Moore)

Scott: We’ve also helped shape one another’s views, especially about how men traditionally treat women and, frankly, how we have treated women in the past ourselves. For me being 57 years old, times have certainly changed a lot. I think I’ve come a long way. All three of us, we see things, and we call things out when we see them. Racism as well.

Dustin:  We were talking on the thread this morning before we called into the phone interview, sharing articles and just talking about the significance of this day.

Beck: We’re talking today on June 6th, and I understand that this is a very important date for you. Would you mind telling me what this date means to you?

Dustin: Before I moved to Memphis, I was in the Army Rangers. Twelve years ago, we were in this small town in Afghanistan, and we got heavy enemy contact. We fought all day long. They were waiting for us. They were well prepared.

Our point man, Charlie Wyckoff, led an assault squad around this corner and there were two Taliban insurgents. One had a rocket-propelled grenade pointed at us, [Charlie’s] squad. The other had an AK-47. So Charlie had a choice to make. He could either shoot the man with the rifle first, and take his chances on the RPG, or he could do what he did: shoot the man with the grenade first, saving his squad. Then he turned on the guy with the AK-47 and they both fired simultaneously. All this happened in a blink of an eye and then they were both dead.  Charlie was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, which is the military’s second-highest honor, because of his actions that day. I'm alive because of that day.

That day is always on my mind. I have it tattooed on my arm. I wear a memorial bracelet with it on there. It’s always been a pretty rough day for me. I’ll go to the bar, drown my sorrows, and pour a drink for my buddy. But last year it changed a little.

Last year on June 6, I was sent the DNA testing kit to begin my process to see if I was compatible to give Scott my kidney.

Beck: Wow. Scott, you were diagnosed with a kidney disorder in 2015. Can you tell me a bit about how that affected your friendship with Brandon and Dustin, and vice versa?

Scott: For years, I had issues that doctors couldn’t figure out. It all culminated one day when I was on the golf course, and I started coughing up blood. I went to the hospital, and when they did all the tests, they indicated some loss of kidney function. So I went to a nephrologist, had a biopsy, and was diagnosed with IgA nephropathy. It's an autoimmune disease, which covers the kidneys. So, you know—big lifestyle changes.

Brandon and Jen, his wife, came over at Thanksgiving that year. After everyone had left except for Brandon and Jen, my wife and I got a bottle of bourbon and poured everybody a glass, and I said, “Well, this is going to be my last bourbon.” So we had that talk.

Then Dustin was down to visit a few weeks later and that’s when I told him about the diagnosis. They were seemingly as heartbroken as if it’d happened to them. I had no idea what was in front of me. But Dustin was like, “Well, I’ve got a kidney you can have.” Right from the beginning—before I knew I needed one.

Dustin: I always said, “I love you like a brother. I’d give you a kidney.” And Scott and Susan [Scott’s wife] used to joke that I’d just show up one day with a cooler on their doorstep and say, “No questions asked.”

Scott photoshopped into The Scream by Edvard Munch. (Courtesy of Scott Moore)

Brandon: I just have to say if there’s anyone who was really negatively impacted by your diagnosis, it was me and Jen, because Scott had to drastically change his diet and it totally impacted the quality of his cooking. Scott is an amazing cook and that really hurt us.

Beck: That’s the true tragedy. How did the decision actually come about, Dustin, for you to give Scott your kidney for real?

Dustin: Scott blew me off a little bit at first. Like, “Yeah, yeah, whatever.” As it became more and more serious and he started dialysis, the nephrologist said, “The perfect match for you would actually be an early 30s white male.” And so Scott was like, “Let me tell you about my friend Dustin.”

Every day I sent a message in the Facebook thread, like, “Take my kidney.” And one day he was like, “Fine. What’s your blood type?” I told him AB positive because that’s what the Army had told me. Scott's like, “Well, you’re off the hook because I’m A positive.” So I got on Amazon and I ordered a do-it-yourself blood-testing kit. According to this kit, I was A positive. So the Army messed up my blood type or it changed, which apparently is a thing the doctors said can happen.

Scott: We joked that if anybody could will their body to change their blood type it would be Dustin.

Dustin: They sent me the first test on June 6. We were hoping for a one- or two-antigen match— the genetic marker that indicates compatibility. We were a four-out-of-six antigen match, which is better than most siblings.

I hit dial on the phone to call Scott. He picked it up as soon as it rang and he’s already bawling and then we’re just crying our eyes out because it’s so unbelievable.

Scott, his dialysis machine and Chewbacca. (Courtesy of Scott Moore)

Brandon: In the meantime, while Scott and Dustin are going through the tissue-matching sessions, Scott’s also going through dialysis. It might be entertaining to hear what Scott did to pass the time sitting in a chair with tubes coming out of him for 12 hours a week.

Scott: I’m sitting there and I’ve got these tubes coming out of my chest, going into this machine and swirling around, and the first thing I thought of was a scene in Young Frankenstein. I snapped a selfie of myself and I thought, “There’s got to be a way to fit Gene Wilder in this thing.” I literally sat there and Googled my way through how to edit images on your phone, and downloaded a few apps. I uploaded the first one, and it was a hit. So to pass the time I just kind of sat there and [edited myself on dialysis into pictures]. I learned how to edit images four hours at a time, three days a week.

Beck: Do you have a favorite one?

Scott: I always say my favorite one is the last one just because it was the last one, which is the jailbreak from Shawshank Redemption. But I gotta say that the one I’m most proud of is the one I called “Dialysistine Chapel,” which is me as Adam. After the surgery I put Dustin’s face on God’s face and he’s handing me the kidney. The kidney in the photo is the actual kidney. Dustin was able to convince one of the surgeons to take a photo of the kidney when it was out of his body.

Scott, Dustin, and Dustin’s kidney. (Courtesy of Scott Moore)

Dustin: That’s my favorite part of the entire story. When I went through the testing process, I talked to probably 25 medical professionals across a wide array of jobs, and every single one of them always said, “You can back out at any time. We’ll make up a reason that you can’t donate your kidney.” They really tried to give me every possible chance to back out. So the day of surgery I’m on the gurney. I had my anesthesiologist, my surgeon, the OR nurses, like seven people around me and I'm like, “Listen, guys, I need something before this can happen.” All their faces dropped. It seemed like they thought I was going to back out.

I said, “It’s not often that a man’s organs are outside of his body and so I’m really going to need somebody to take a picture of it and send it to me.” The anesthesiologist was like, “Alright. What’s your phone number?” So after surgery, I wake up and he walks by and goes, “Hey, check your phone.” And so we have a picture of the kidney that now belongs to Scott.

Beck: I saw on Facebook that you were calling it “Ranger kidney.” Is that because Dustin was a ranger?

Scott: That’s right, yes. So if I’m out drinking or something, I’m always like, “Ranger kidney …”

Beck: Time to step up.

Scott: That’s right.

Beck: Can you tell me a little more about the operation day, how that went?

Scott: So as a trumpet player, having someone slice your abdomen open is not high on your list of things you want to have done. But after doing dialysis for a few weeks I was like, “Let’s go.” I’m not going to lie, dialysis sucked. It was just the worst. I had horrible muscle cramps because they’re pulling off five pounds of fluid sometimes. The machines clog up and alarms go off. It can be hell. So I was ready for that surgery.

Dustin was awesome, came down and did the surgery. My recovery was six weeks. I couldn’t do anything. And Dustin was hurting pretty hard at the beginning but recovered much more quickly. You played golf, what, like two weeks after, Dustin?

Dustin: It was three or four weeks, I think. Nine holes.

Scott: It took a little while for me to get back to full strength. But my lab numbers are better than any physical I’ve had for the last 20 years. It’s amazing how quickly it changed my life.

Brandon: Something that’s a little abnormal in this process is their recovery after the surgery was done together as well. Dustin stayed in Scott’s house and they were both parked in rocking chairs in Scott’s living room for a couple of weeks recovering together.

Dustin: For about ten days.

Scott: The best night of our life was when I called my doctor and was like, “So, I can drink whiskey now, right?” He’s like, “Oh, yeah. No problem.” And we also discovered that the liquor store delivered. So we had some very nice scotches.

Dustin: Neither of us really liked the opiates that they gave us for pain management because they just made us feel so terrible later on. So instead of the Percocet they gave us, we switched to whiskey.

Scott and his dialysis machine in a scene from Shawshank Redemption. (Courtesy of Scott Moore)

Brandon: Being someone who really cares about these two people but also being a little bit on the outside of it, I had the perspective of getting to watch them go through it. For me, it really brought out some of what is most essential about each of them. Like Scott with the dialysis pics, for instance. I mean, yeah, they were hilarious, but what was really moving was to watch how Scott was processing something that was really difficult to go through. He very well could have died. The life expectancy, once you’re on dialysis, drops dramatically. It was a really dangerous situation and Scott chose to use humor and creativity. That speaks to who he is as a person.

And then Dustin. I really feel like Dustin’s calling is service. Whether consciously or not, it’s something that he’s always been drawn to, and this was one of the most ultimate ways that he could give of himself. It was really moving and meaningful to be able to see aspects of your friends blown up and magnified through something like this.

Dustin: Aw. Thanks, buddy.

There’s one more little piece I want to mention. Scott and I met at Overton Park, practicing alongside the No. 8 fairway. Then when I came to Memphis to get all the testing done, he and I were actually standing on the first tee at Overton Park getting ready to tee off when I got the call that we could schedule surgery. That was a pretty special moment. We were standing 100 yards from the spot that we met.

Beck: Do you feel like your friendship has been changed by this experience?

Scott: I’ve got a part of Dustin with me. As Dustin likes to say, he’s in me.

Dustin: I’m inside you.

Scott: Even before the operation, I think there’s probably nothing that could have ever completely destroyed our bond. But now, it’s there forever. Brandon’s still part of that circle and part of our story. The three of us are just … it’s hard to describe, really. One of you other guys go. One of you other wordy guys.

Dustin: People always ask me, “Would you do it again?” Or “Do you regret your decision?” Even if Scott and I weren’t friends anymore, which will never happen, I still wouldn’t regret the decision. From the moment I thought Scott might need a kidney, it was just a given to me that I was giving him mine. Scott and Brandon—our friendship has ups and downs, we’ll argue and get mad at each other, but they’re my brothers. Everybody fights with their siblings. I just continue to love them more each and every day.

Brandon: Going through big life events kind of strips away some of the facade of your relationships. You know those people in your life that much better, and our roots go really deep.

Scott: Back in November, Dustin came to Memphis. There was a concert the orchestra was doing for Veterans Day, to salute veterans. So we set this whole thing up and surprised Dustin. At the beginning of the second half [of the concert] they showed this video that the transplant clinic had done, and I talk about Dustin briefly in that video. Then I came out and spoke briefly about Dustin and asked everyone to thank him for his service to our country and for his gift of life to me. And he got a rousing, standing, screaming ovation for several minutes.

Dustin: What Scott means to say is he made me stand up unannounced in front of hundreds of people while they all clapped, which, if you know me, is maybe my worst-case scenario in life ever. But it was very, very humbling, very touching. I cried. There’s a photo of me crying, which is also super awesome.

If you or someone you know should be featured on The Friendship Files, get in touch at friendshipfiles@theatlantic.com, and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique.