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Fireman turns kidney donor for Kan. friend

December 2, 2012


There was a time when Gillan Alexander didn’t know Rob Robinson by his name — only by his state.

Robinson, a firefighter and hunter from Starkville, came to Alexander’s farm near Nicodemus, Kan., in pursuit of the “Grand Slam,” a turkey hunting term for killing all four of America’s huntable turkey species. Robinson had a sister living in Kansas, so he continued making return trips to Alexander’s farm, and Alexander said he nicknamed Robinson “Mississippi.”

“I’m pretty bad with names, (but) each time, year after year, as soon as he opened his mouth, I could certainly remember (Robinson was from) Mississippi,” Alexander said.

Today, not only is Alexander on a first-name basis with Robinson, but he also literally carries a piece of Robinson inside him: a kidney Robinson donated to Alexander on Monday.

For 20 years, Alexander had battled focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, or FSGS, which scars the kidney tissues that filter blood. In August 2011, he began dialysis treatment, which he said interfered dramatically with the life he had known as a farmer and rancher.
“Dialysis is hard on the body,” Alexander said. “You have a better chance of survival with a live donor. It just meant all the world to me that Rob did this for me.”

Robinson said he had himself tested as a potential donor not long after learning about Alexander’s condition. His kidneys turned out to be a good match for Alexander, he said, just as the two of them had become a match as friends.

“We just hit it off. It’s been a great friendship, something I could have never really asked for,” Robinson said. “It’s like, he’s a country farmer in ...Kansas, and I love the outdoors. I’m just a simple guy, and he’s a simple guy. He’s an early riser because he’s a farmer, and I’m always getting an update on the weather report and letting him know what the weather is like in Mississippi. He’s always there and wants to hear from you.”

Robinson and Alexander said their friendship began developing true depth in only the past year, and it began with a happy accident. In fall 2011, Robinson asked Alexander for permission to camp out on his land for hunting purposes. Alexander said he offered to let Robinson stay in his home but, Robinson declined.

“He said, ‘No, I do this all the time.’ I had just gotten my labrador; he was not quite a year old,” Alexander said. “Rob said (this labrador) went for some food in the tent, (and) he just tore the tent to shreds. Rob wouldn’t let me replace his tent or anything. He told me he was coming back in April. I told him, ‘Just leave the tent at home.’”
Once again, Robinson said, Alexander offered to let him stay in his home, and this time, Robinson accepted.

“That’s when we really hit it off as friends, and I got to know his story, what he was going through medically,” Robinson said. “I decided I was going to try to help and become a kidney donor. Ever since then, everything has fallen into place.”

Sharon Robinson, Rob’s wife, said she had few reservations about Rob’s decision to become Alexander’s donor. She was a little nervous for Rob’s sake, she said, but both she and Rob began to believe there was a reason Rob met Alexander.

“It was a godsend,” Sharon said. “Everything just fell into place (too much for it) not to be. I was even going to try to get tested (as a potential donor), but I was too petite. You have to be compatible in size.”

Sharon said she had never met Alexander in person before his family invited her and Rob up for Thanksgiving before the transplant surgery, but she had learned enough about him by phone to develop her own friendship with him. Now that she has met Alexander’s family, she said she hopes to return again, this time with her children.

“I walked into a house full of strangers and felt like they were my family, and (I) fell in love with every one of them,” Sharon said. “We had so much to be thankful for; it wasn’t just another Thanksgiving. (Alexander) was spending six days a week on dialysis. As a farmer, he couldn’t function. My husband was giving another man a chance to keep living. You can’t beat that.”

Alexander said Thanksgiving with the Robinsons was also a gift to his family.

“It was a very emotional, very blessed event,” Alexander said. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

As of Friday, Alexander said he had only been out of the hospital a few hours, but the transition to his new kidney has gone well so far. Now that he and Rob are on a first-name basis, he said, the kidney has given him a new use for an old nickname:

“I’ve named my new kidney ‘Mississippi,’” Alexander said. “(The Robinsons) are both salt of the earth; they’re just good people. Where I come from, we’re farm people, and we take care of each other. They fit in perfectly.”

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