In need of kidney, Martrel Johnson waits wearily

It wasn’t that long ago when Martrel Johnson was a basketball star at Durango High School.

He was 6 feet 4 inches, 220 pounds, the Trailblazers’ leading scorer. After the first five games of his senior year in 2001, he was averaging 18 points and 13 rebounds. He had signed with Montana State.

The kid could play.

Then the kid started to get tired when he played.

The kid was told he needed a kidney transplant.

Beating Bishop Gorman didn’t matter anymore.

So the kid got a kidney transplant. He still got tired, and on top of that, he began having trouble breathing. Let’s check your heart, said the men with the lab coats at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.

Then the kid had open-heart surgery, to repair a defective valve.

Now he needs another kidney transplant, because the virulent disease that made him so tired when he was a senior in high school is back, and his body has rejected the transplanted kidney he received from his father, Martin Henry.

So now Martrel Johnson is 28 years old and living in Wisconsin, to be closer to hospitals that specialize in treating kidney disease patients. And he’s tired again. You can hear it in his voice.

He has been on the list for another kidney since 2007. There are no matches, probably because there aren’t enough living donors. And so in addition to being tired, he’s frustrated. You can hear that in his voice, too.

"There are 300 million people in the United States, and 75,000 are waiting," he says. "Everybody is born with two (kidneys). You can live with one."

You can’t live with none, at least not for very long.

There are five stages of chronic kidney disease. Stage 1 is the mildest, stage 5 the worst.

"I don’t have a stage because I have no kidneys and no function," Johnson says, "and when it did fail, it was a stage 5."

And so there are a lot of bills to pay.

You go back to school, get a real estate license, but you don’t get to use it much because selling real estate is a full-time job that wears you out.

So you get a part-time job, a valet at one of those hospitals you know so well, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It doesn’t pay the medical bills, not even close. There simply are too many drops in that bucket. But at least it doesn’t wear you out.

On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday you go to dialysis. For four hours. That wears you out. After that, you pass out at home for a couple more hours.

When – if – you wake up, you try to do something meaningful with the rest of your day. But you do it slowly. After four hours of being hooked up to those machines, there is no other way.

So you set up a Facebook page and have some T-shirts printed up. "Share a Life, Donate a Kidney," it says on front, showing happy cartoon kidneys racing toward a finish line. The T-shirts cost $15. Another drop in the bucket.

You take inspiration from others in the same situation, those who have scored and rebounded at the highest level. You write to Sean Elliott, who also suffers from focal segmental glomerulosclerosis – chronic kidney disease – and played two seasons for the San Antonio Spurs after receiving a kidney from his brother.

A couple of weeks later, an autographed picture of Sean Elliott and the Spurs arrives in the mail. Not even another drop in the bucket. Not exactly the kind of inspiration you had in mind.

So the kid from Las Vegas with the bum kidneys and the bum heart says perhaps he will move to Florida and reach out to Alonzo Mourning instead. Zo retired from the NBA in 2003 when his kidneys failed, then made a comeback after a successful transplant.

Maybe he’ll be more receptive to ideas for raising awareness and/or funds for kidney transplants through free-throw shooting contests and whatnot.

This is what you do when you’re Martrel Johnson. You do what you can and hope for an angel to arrive on your doorstep bearing one of those smiling cartoon kidneys, like on the T-shirt.

And then it’s Tuesday or Thursday or Saturday, and you’re back on those dialysis machines, and four hours later you are tired all over again.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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