North Las Vegas man to get gift of life, a kidney from his younger sister

George McLaurin remembers that he didn’t even give the scheduled 2007 physical examination a second thought.

It was just something he had to do before training to become a yoga instructor.

"I worked 10 hours a day as an ironworker, practiced yoga four times a week and taught karate," he said recently as he sat at the kitchen table of his North Las Vegas home with sister Valerie McLaurin and niece Ayana Williams. "I felt great."

What McLaurin thought was routine, however, turned out to be anything but.

Blood and urine tests found that his kidneys were operating at only 7 percent efficiency.

Now he’s headed for a Jan. 15 kidney transplant at University Medical Center.

"It was mind blowing to find out I was in such condition," he said. "I just couldn’t believe it. How could I be walking around working on skyscrapers and doctors said I could die at any time?"

As the 40-year-old McLaurin talks, his sister, four years his junior, holds his hand. They’ve always been close — they learned dances together growing up — and they’re about to get closer.

It is one of her kidneys that doctors will implant in McLaurin, who is tired on this day after being hooked up for four hours to a dialysis machine that artificially filters his waste and removes excess fluid from his body.

"I didn’t think twice about donating a kidney when I found out I was a match," the mother of three children said. "I want us to grow up older together."

When she called their mother, Betty Tolliver, to tell her she was "a perfect match," Tolliver was driving.

"I started crying," Tolliver said. "I had to pull off the road. I was thrilled that my kids were so close, but sometimes I can’t even talk about it. I’m proud, but to have the only two children you have in surgery at the same time, you can’t help but be nervous."

If all had gone as originally scheduled, the transplant would have already taken place on July 1 at Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center.

But that turned out to be the date that Sunrise officials announced they would merge their transplant services into the existing program at UMC.

"That was very hard to take for the entire family," said McLaurin, who is married with 10- and 7-year-old daughters. "We had our hopes all up and we had to go through a lot of the testing all over again."

Though the testing went well, there was a time when McLaurin — with 200 other Nevadans awaiting kidney transplants — didn’t think any of the procedures would even be done at UMC anytime soon.

In September, the program had to shut down because of illness to its main transplant surgeon. And then the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced it would revoke the program’s license in December for quality deficiencies.

"That’s not the kind of roller coaster a family wants to be on," said McLaurin’s wife, Debbie. "Neither George nor I have slept well for a long time."

The decertification of the UMC program was stayed, however, after public officials intervened and the hospital added administrative staff to its transplant service and contracted with four surgeons from the renowned University of Utah Transplant Program.

The program now has until June 8 to meet all federal standards, or its license for the service will be revoked.

"I’m convinced that UMC has brought in people who want to make this program one of the best or I would have somehow got the money to go out of town to have it done," George McLaurin said.

Rick Plummer, a UMC spokesman, said the hospital is well on the way to making the program top-notch.

"We’re excited about this surgical team," he said, adding that the McLaurin procedure will be one of the first two living donor transplants done under the new regime. "This is a valuable service for Nevadans."

Dr. John Sorensen, the head of the transplant surgical team, said two operating rooms are set aside for the transplant procedure that should last about four hours.

When the kidney from Valerie McLaurin is about to be removed through a small laproscopic incision, he said doctors will open up her brother.

"We time it pretty close," he said.

After the harvested organ is flushed with preservation fluid, physicians immediately will begin to implant it.

Valerie McLaurin, Sorensen said, should be able to leave the hospital in three or four days, while her brother could be out in a week.

"For the first few weeks to see how his new kidney is working, his life will be consumed with lab work and studies," Sorensen said.

McLaurin knows he’s fortunate that his sister is a match. "Many people wait a long, long time," he said.

Cecile Aguayo, a UMC transplant coordinator, said you can’t help but be moved by Valerie McLaurin’s love for her brother.

"She wants so badly for him to go back to his old way of life," she said.

According to the National Kidney Foundation, more than 3,900 kidney patients died in 2006 waiting for a transplant. A little more than 17,000 kidney transplants were done in that year.

Organ procurement and transplantation statistics show that more than 80,000 people are on the waiting list in the United States for a kidney transplant, including 220 Nevadans.

Though kidney donations have nearly doubled in the past 10 years, the donor population simply isn’t keeping up with the need. The most dramatic part of that jump is in donations from living donors. Over the same time period, living donations have nearly tripled, largely because of laproscopic surgical procedures that lessen downtime for donors.

The procedure is not without risk for donors. Up to 2 percent of donors suffer complications, according to the National Kidney Foundation, with 50 percent of those needing an operation. In 2005, the federal government estimated the chance of donor death at 0.03 percent, or three in 10,000, after studying 46 years of the procedure.

Though Valerie McLaurin’s 12-year-old daughter, Ayana Williams, is proud that her mother is giving the gift of life to her Uncle George, she admitted to being worried.

"What if something goes wrong?" she said.

Negative thinking is something that George McLaurin will not engage in.

"I can’t afford it," he said. "I’ve got a family to think of."

Not only will he survive, he said, he will thrive. And he said somehow — perhaps by opening a yoga studio — he’ll get back on firmer financial footing.

"My wife works in an office, and we’ve been trying to get by on that," he said. "But we’re missing my $4,000 a month as an ironworker."

Though doctors urged him to get dialysis immediately after they discovered his kidney disease in August 2007, McLaurin refused to do so until March so his family wouldn’t go off the deep end financially.

"I still felt good then, and I figured I’d get the transplant in July so I wouldn’t have to be out of work for long," he said.

Only recently has he begun to receive Social Security disability pay for an ailment that he suspects really began 20 years ago.

"When I was diagnosed with high blood pressure and given medication to control it, they said I had small kidneys and I may have trouble someday," he said. "Of course, the way they talked it sounded like I’d be an old man before anything happened."

Members of the yoga community who hope their friend grows old have put on a number of fundraisers for the family.

Yoga instructor Sharon Jalene suspects McLaurin will bounce back fast.

"Even after they found out he had such a problem with his kidneys, he continued to work and do yoga for months," she said. "You have to respect his tenacity."

Dray Gardner, who hoped to open a new yoga studio in January with McLaurin as a partner, said he can’t believe his longtime friend will be down for long. They still serve as disc jockeys together at the Japonais nightspot in The Mirage on Friday and Saturday nights.

"You have to remember he was one of those guys who could walk on those steel bars high in the sky," he said. "They’re a different breed."

Contact reporter Paul Harasim at or 702-387-2908.

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