After protecting and serving as a Missouri police officer, Ryan Armistead found himself in trouble. And while he’d survived every criminal and danger that he’d encountered thus far, the greatest threat came from within. A rare auto-immune disorder had caused irreversible damage to his kidneys, you see – but then a stranger appeared and offered him a new lease of life.
Before Armistead fell ill, he had led a busy life. Not only was he a full-time machine shop worker, but he also worked part-time as a Missouri police officer. And on top of that, he has a son called Gregory with his wife, Jessica. But Armistead’s life changed dramatically in 2015 following his diagnosis, which saw him on dialysis six months later and on a waiting list for a new kidney, too.
It’s worth noting, meanwhile, that medical science has made huge advances since the world’s first successful organ transplant. Back in 1954 Richard Herrick’s life was ebbing away in Boston’s Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, and he was in dire need of a kidney. Luckily, though, his identical twin, Ronald, gave him his and became the first ever organ donor by doing so – a move that saved his sibling’s life.
It’s perhaps little surprise that Joseph Murray, the procedure’s lead surgeon, received much praise for pulling off the groundbreaking operation. In fact, his contributions earned him a Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1990. And he shared the award with physician Edward Donnall Thomas, who had also made strides in the field of organ and cell transplantation.
But while both Murray and Thomas passed away in 2012, the scientists certainly left significant legacies in the world of medicine. These days, after all, transplants are far more common; not only that, but an incredible 125 million people have also signed up to be organ donors, according to Organdonor.gov. This means that when said individuals pass away, doctors can use their organs for life-saving – or life-changing – operations.
But donors can help while they’re still alive, too, by providing patients in need with kidneys, for instance, or a portion of their lungs or livers. However, few transplants are as simple as just finding a person who is willing to donate their body part. That’s because doctors also have to identify an individual whose organ is medically compatible with that of the expecting patient. And if this is not the case, their body may reject it.
Usually, you see, a person’s immune system only fights unrecognized and potentially dangerous substances – such as germs, for instance – within the body in order to protect it. But in the case of transplants, individuals’ immune systems may perceive the proteins that are found on donated organs as threats, too. And thus, they rebel against the foreign objects, causing physical rejections. But that’s not the only difficulty when it comes to getting new organs.
After all, according to Organdonor.gov, there were over 113,000 people waiting for a transplant in the U.S. in January 2019. What’s more, the list reportedly increases by one person every ten minutes. And even more alarmingly, 20 individuals in America die every day while awaiting a suitable donor.
With this in mind, then, researchers are exploring other methods of obtaining organs for patients in need. One potential solution is xenotransplantation, which involves using animal organs to replace human ones. It’s worth noting, though, that this isn’t a new concept; doctors first attempted such a transplant back in 1905, using pieces of rabbit kidney.
But while scientists continue to explore the possibilities of xenotransplantation, it brings up many medical issues that still require solving. The fact that animal organs age quicker than those belonging to humans is one of them, for instance, while biological compatibility is another. And so, for now, animal transplants remain a possible solution in theory only, and no successful trials have yet been conducted.
Meanwhile, lab-grown organs using stem cells are another potential solution – albeit a controversial one. Up until now, artificial organs have mostly been used as placeholders until doctors can perform permanent transplants. But with the development of technological advances such as 3D printing – which could serve to manufacture entire human organs – some specialists believe that we’re getting closer to a time when science will be able to create any replacement body parts that we need.
In fact, English doctor Stephen Westaby from Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital said that heart transplants may soon be almost obsolete. “I think within ten years we won’t see any more heart transplants – except for people with congenital heart damage, where only a new heart will do,” he told British newspaper The Telegraph in 2017.
But despite encouraging advancements in science, patients on the transplant list still face long and uncertain waits for new organs. And part-time policeman Ryan Armistead had first-hand experience of this when he fell ill in 2015. After suffering from recurring headaches, he had visited a doctor – only to receive some dreadful news. The medical professional had informed him that he had an illness called IgA nephropathy.
Once known as Berger’s disease, IgA nephropathy is a rare illness of the kidneys and the immune system. Its name comes from an antibody – called IgA – that’s naturally found inside us. But in some cases, the body creates an odd strain of IgA, and a third kind of antibody – IgA1 – is released as a result. So what exactly is the problem?
Well, when IgA1 reaches the kidneys, it causes them to produce more proteins – which in turn reduces the organs’ effectiveness. And this is exactly what had happened to Armistead. According to Fox News, his doctors informed him, “You need to go to a hospital; you’re at 13 percent kidney function.” The cop coped with the condition for six months, but it damaged his kidneys permanently, meaning that he needed dialysis.
And as a result, Armistead had to visit the hospital three times a week to artificially drain fluid and purge his body’s waste products from his blood. The cop shared a picture on Facebook of the medication that he needed to take alongside the dialysis. According to the post, the giant pile of boxes visible in the image would last him just a single month at most.
However, dialysis was just a temporary solution for Armistead. What the police officer really needed was a kidney transplant – but it wasn’t likely to happen anytime soon. In fact, he could be waiting as long as seven years for an eligible organ donor, Armistead’s physicians told him.
Nevertheless, even in the face of such bad news, Armistead refused to give up. And he even seemed somewhat positive when speaking to news site The Western Journal in February 2019. He said, “We just look at it as five to seven years of a bump in the road before we can go back to a normal life.”
Meanwhile, Armistead carried on his law enforcement work as best he could. But the cop’s condition continued to worsen, and his medical treatment intensified, too – to the point at which it was no longer practical to go to the hospital. Instead, Armistead had to get a dialysis machine for his own home.
In addition to the medicine bills, Armistead’s dialysis cost him roughly $30,000 a month, according to The Western Journal. What’s more, he worried about how his condition was affecting his loved ones, telling the news site, “It’s hard on everybody because you have to revolve your life around this.” And the situation was proving especially confusing for his young son, Gregory.
“He just knows daddy’s got to have his shots,” Armistead explained. It’s fair to say, then, that things had become difficult both financially and emotionally for the family. So much so, in fact, that as time went on, they looked for alternative methods to support themselves and speed along the organ donation process.
And so, the Armisteads decided to set up a GoFundMe account in order to try and raise money for the medical bills that they were racking up. The family also created a Facebook page to increase awareness about the ailing officer’s plight – and potentially locate him a new kidney. They were so desperate to find a donor, in fact, that Jessica even had a car magnet made featuring her husband’s details.
“In need of a kidney for a dad, husband, son, uncle and friend,” the magnet read. “Ryan Armistead, Type O blood, please call Barnes Hospital… to be tested to save a life!” And as luck would have it, local association St. Charles County Missouri Scanner Traffic saw the magnet and shared it on Facebook, too.
Word spread from there, and before Armistead knew it, the media had picked up on his story. Then one day, it looked as though the police officer’s patience had finally paid off. That’s because a man called Jeff Vogan came forward offering him a new kidney, and so doctors began testing Vogan to determine whether or not his organs would be suitable.
However, sadly, Vogan and Armistead weren’t a match. And the police officer articulated his disappointment about the revelation in an interview with KSDK News in August 2018. He said, “It’s definitely been an emotional roller coaster. It definitely [hurts] that, yeah, it didn’t happen. But then I look again and try to think on the positive, and I’m one step closer.”
As it turned out, though, Armistead was actually a lot closer than he thought. Abbie Dunkle, a mother of two from Illinois, had happened upon one of the cop’s Facebook posts. And it was just the opportunity that she’d been looking for since the death of her close friend 19 years previously.
You see, Dunkle’s buddy had been a registered donor, so after she’d passed away, her organs had gone to others who’d needed them. And ever since then, Dunkle had been searching for an opportunity to change someone’s life in a similar way. When the Illinois mom saw Armistead’s desperate situation, then, she knew that she had to help.
“The fact that [Armistead is] a stranger didn’t really matter to me,” Dunkle told Inside Edition in February 2019. What’s more, Armistead had no idea that she had been taking tests to see if they were a match. He only found out after doctors had completed the process, in fact – when Dunkle contacted him personally on Facebook.
Dunkle’s Facebook message read, “Hi Ryan. My name is Abbie, and a few months ago your news story showed up on my Facebook feed. I started the process to see if I might be a match for you. I finished the process last week, and we are a match!”
Dunkle continued, “I was told today that your transplant coordinator should contact you next week to tell you. But I figured you may not want to wait that long to find out. If you’re not wanting to be in touch, I completely understand, and you don’t need to respond unless you’d like to.”
Armistead revealed to Good Morning America in February 2019 that he couldn’t believe the message at first. He recalled, “I literally fell to my knees and started crying. It had been such a long wait, and when Abbie contacted me, she had already done everything 100 percent.”
Meanwhile, Dunkle even had a provisional surgery date in hospital booked, ready and waiting for Armistead’s approval. But before jumping into the operation, the two decided to meet in person. And so, just before Christmas 2018, Dunkle went with her husband, Steve, to visit the Armistead family.
“[It was] just to see my [dialysis] machine and what I had to go through,” Armistead told Inside Edition of the purpose of Dunkle’s visit. “That’s when it hit home that this was a real deal.” The two families then spent the day talking and learning about one another’s lives.
“We all just kind of hit it off,” Dunkle explained. “He’s just like a regular guy; this could happen to anyone.” Then in January 2019, the big day finally arrived. And St. Louis’ Barnes-Jewish Hospital admitted her and Armistead for their life-changing transplant.
Thankfully, the procedure was a complete success, and both patients are doing well. For Armistead, he has a completely new lease of life after years of suffering on medication and dialysis. In fact, when Inside Edition interviewed the cop just two weeks after the operation, he said, “I’m great; I feel amazing. I’m up [and] moving around. I just feel a whole lot better.”
Meanwhile, Dunkle is likewise recovering after the procedure – aside from some expected fatigue, of course. The donor added, “I’m feeling really good. It’s amazing to me that a piece of me is living in [Armistead’s] body.” What’s more, both families have kept in contact ever since and speak almost on a daily basis.
And yet there’s one more thing that’s concerning Armistead about his life going forward: his medical bills. You see, even after health insurance, his family still owes an estimated $50,000 for his hospital treatment. But the recovering cop is hopeful that his GoFundMe page will help cover some of the expense.
And after all that he’s been through, Armistead is still trying to look on the bright side. He told Inside Edition, for instance, “We’ll just have to make payments as best we can. They can’t come repo [my donated kidney].” In fact, he’s seemingly just grateful that the operation was a success and that he can now look towards the future.
“[Dunkle] has gone above and beyond for saving my life and giving my wife and son the husband and father that they need and want to be around,” Armistead revealed on Good Morning America. “I know now that I’ll be able to see my son grow up.”
Armistead continued, “Before that, I didn’t know how old he was going to be before it beat me down. It was scary to think of.” As for Dunkle, meanwhile, she sacrificed a kidney – but gained so much more. “We like to say that we’re family now,” she said of the Armisteads. “I think every time I talk to him, he thanks me again. He and his family are very thankful.”