Dr. Aji Djamali, chair of the department of medicine at Maine Medical Center, recently donated his kidney to a former patient at the UW Health Transplant Center in Madison, Wisconsin. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

In the quarter century he’s been a kidney specialist, Dr. Aji Djamali has consulted with hundreds of potential organ donors.

He’s often wondered what the other side of that conversation might look like.

“I was always in awe of their courage and how they were stepping up and being selfless and going through something they didn’t have to, to help another human being,” said Djamali, chair of Maine Medical Center’s department of medicine. “And I always wondered if I would be able to walk the walk because I’m the adviser, right? I’m talking to these candidates going through risks and benefits, but do I really know what I’m talking about?”

As of late last month, Djamali can now say yes.

On June 29, doctors in Wisconsin removed his right kidney and successfully transplanted it into John Jartz, an Illinois man who had been Djamali’s patient several years earlier.

Djamali, 53, said he wanted to talk about his experience in part to draw awareness to the high need for living donors.


“I knew if I did it, what I wanted to do was not only impact the life of the person I was helping directly, but I wanted to get the word out so that people could think about the 100,000 people in this country right now who need a kidney and think, maybe this is something I can do,” he said.

Dr. Juan Palma, director of living donations at Maine Med’s Maine Transplant Program, said the need for kidney donors has grown in Maine during the pandemic. There are currently about 240 patients in Maine on a waiting list.

Dr. Aji Djamali and John Jartz on the day of the transplant surgery. Photo courtesy of UW Health

“Baby boomers are living longer and kidney disease is more prevalent,” he explained. “And if you think of the leading factors – diabetes and high blood pressure – it’s everywhere.

“But transplants also have become victims of their own success.”

Jartz, 68, said in a phone interview Tuesday that he’s still in shock.

“I knew I had the perfect donor, but I still didn’t think it would go as smoothly,” he said. “He’s my brother. I have a piece of him in me now.”



Djamali owes his career path, in some ways, to a mentor he met while completing a residency in France. Dr. Georges Mourad was a transplant nephrologist, or kidney doctor, and talked often about the scientific miracle of organ donation.

Djamali became a nephrologist himself and spent more than two decades practicing at the University of Wisconsin Health Transplant Center in Madison.

That’s where he met Jartz, among hundreds of other patients.

Jartz was diagnosed in 2014 with polycystic kidney disease (PKD), an inherited disorder in which cysts on the kidneys enlarge and eventually cause the organs to stop working. He and his wife, Kathy, live in a suburb of Chicago and started visiting transplant centers in the Midwest.

A meeting with Djamali at UW ended that search.


“There was something about Aji. We just developed a certain chemistry, I never had that happen with a doctor,” Jartz said. “I remember driving back with my wife and I looked at her, I said, ‘We found our place.’ ”

He started to get emotional.

“Little did I know how important that decision would be,” he said.

Dr. Aji Djamali with his former patient John Jartz at the UW Health Transplant Center in Madison, Wisconsin in June. Photo courtesy of UW Health

As doctor and patient, the two developed an easy rapport and then became friends. They shared stories about the places they traveled. Jartz is a retired attorney for Quaker Oats Company.

After two years, Djamali transferred Jartz’s care to another nephrologist, but he stayed up to date on his care and would often meet with Jartz when he came to Madison.

The friendship continued, even as Jartz’s condition worsened. By 2019, it was clear he would need a kidney transplant or would die of renal failure. He wanted to avoid dialysis at all costs


Jartz said his wife wanted to be a donor but had recently battled cancer, and it was too risky. Others offered as well. It was tricky because Jartz had a rare blood type, B. Although donors are not mandated to have the same blood type, it can help.

Djamali, meanwhile, had always been interested in becoming a living kidney donor. Research shows that patients who receive kidneys from living donors have much better outcomes than those who receive deceased donor kidneys.

The only stipulation, Djamali said, came from his wife, Shawn. Wait until their three children were grown. The timing was right.

Jartz didn’t know it at the time, but Djamali’s blood was also type B.


Late last year, Djamali decided to leave the UW Health Transplant Center to take a job at Maine Medical Center.


But he made another decision around the same time. He would donate his kidney to Jartz.

He called his former patient to tell him the news.

First, he started with the bad.

“I told him I was taking this job in Maine, and he was very excited for the new opportunity, but also sad that I was leaving, right?” Djamali said. “So we continued to talk, and we were getting to the end of the conversation. I was nervous and was pacing. I said, ‘One last thing, John,’ and he said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘I may know of someone who is blood type B and who might be interested in being a living kidney donor for you.’ He said, ‘Oh yeah, who?’ I said, ‘Me.’ ”

For several seconds, there was silence.

“I’m not a man who is lost for words, but my wife and I looked at each other and just started crying,” Jartz said. “I never thought he’d offer to be a donor, especially when he had just accepted this big job in Maine. To me he was saying, “I want to save your life.’”


Djamali said Jartz’s reaction validated his decision.

“I knew I was already making a difference,” he said.

Because Djamali had relationships with everyone at the UW transplant center, he got to pick the surgical team. The surgeon who removed his kidney, Joshua Mezrich, and the one who transplanted it into Jartz, Dixon Kaufman, joked about holding their colleague’s organ in their hand.

John Jartz and Dr. Aji Djamali developed a relationship that went beyond patient and doctor, and turned into a life-saving friendship Photo courtesy of UW Health

The procedure was a success.

Djamali said he was discharged from the hospital less than 24 hours after the procedure. He’s back in Maine now and back to work.

Jartz is recovering well, too. He said the only painkiller he’s had to take is Tylenol.


Palma, the living donation director of the Maine Transplant Program, said the demographics of living kidney donors are changing. It used to be family members only, but now it’s often friends and even Good Samaritans who decide to donate without even knowing where their organ might end up.

“There are still many challenges,” he said. “We can’t accept every person. I always hate to have to tell someone, this is risky for you.”

Djamali and Jartz both said talking about their experience was important.

“There are about 250 people on a wait list in Maine right now,” Djamali said. “If we could clear this wait list, that would be fantastic. I know more people will be added, but it could be a successful cycle as opposed to a vicious cycle.”

The two still marvel at the fortuitous nature of their partnership.

“To think that someone like me, who was born in Tehran, Iran, and someone like John, who was born in Clintonville, Wisconsin, could be nearly perfect matches, which is very rare, it was such a reminder that we are all brothers and sisters,” Djamali said.

Anyone who is interested in learning more about living kidney donation can visit the Maine Transplant Program website or call the living donor program toll free at (800) 870-5230.

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