By Chanda Temple
City of Birmingham
Jarralynne Agee’s life motto is pretty simple: Follow your heart.
She followed her heart when she moved from Ohio to Nashville, where she met her future husband, Bob, on the same day of her move in 1994.
She followed her heart in 2008 when she and her husband moved their family from California to Birmingham for a new way of life.
And she followed her heart in January 2019 when she donated a kidney to a Birmingham friend who’d been on dialysis for three years.
“When somebody follows their heart, they make the kind of decisions that can not only have a big impact on themselves and their life but on the life of others,’’ said Agee, special projects liaison in the City of Birmingham Mayor’s Office.
That impact is being felt every day by Agee’s kidney transplant recipient, retired NFL player and businessman Gary Burley. He calls Agee his “earth angel.’’
“When you sit in that (dialysis) chair for three years, four hours a day, three times a week, knowing that your chances of dying are more than your chances of living a long period…’’ it’s a lot, said Burley. “But by Jarralynne doing what she did, she helped lift some of what I was experiencing. I wake up every day, thanking her. She’s my earth angel.’’
In 2016, Burley was placed on the kidney transplant waiting list and actively started looking for a kidney. Forty people, including his wife, offered to help. But for health reasons or other reasons, they were not a match. Those with high blood pressure and diabetes, for example, cannot donate. However, that didn’t stop Burley and his support system. They continued to promote his need for a kidney.
In January 2018, Agee saw Burley’s Facebook post about a need for a kidney. She felt in her heart that she was a match. And after discussing it with her husband and two sons, she went for testing. After several rounds of testing, she finally learned she was a match. She surprised Burley with the news in January 2019. On Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019, the two gathered with family and friends to pray for a successful surgery. On Friday, Jan. 18, 2019 a successful transplant was made.
“I Feel Blessed”
Today, more than two months after the transplant, Agee said she has no regrets. “I feel amazing, I feel blessed. I feel honored that God allowed me to be this vessel,’’ said Agee. “I just had a feeling that I would be the one. I went through all of the tests. I treated it like grade school tests – I wanted to pass.’’
And Agee passed with flying colors. Along her journey, friends and family stepped in for support, providing meals, prayers and more. Agee’s boss, Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, checked in on her and Burley. But after those hospital visits, Mayor Woodfin took his support one step further by having a new city policy created to give employees up to four weeks of leave if they donate an organ like a kidney or a portion of a liver. Those who donate bone marrow will get up to one week of leave.
This leave is for employees who’ve worked for the city for at least one year and have worked at least 1,250 hours in the last 12 months.
“Living organ donors sacrifice so much to save lives, and this new policy is just one way I want to show how, we as a city, applaud our employees’ sacrifice and stand with them in their decision,’’ said Mayor Woodfin. “This announcement comes as we celebrate April being National Donate Life Month. It was the right thing to do for our city and our employees.’’ (Another employee, Birmingham Fire and Rescue Service Lt. Robert Tellis Jr., also donated a kidney to his father, Robert Tellis Sr., in January 2019.)
“And from what I understand from UAB, Birmingham is the first Alabama municipality to have such a policy,’’ Woodfin said.
Dr. Jayme E. Locke, the UAB transplant surgeon responsible for transplanting Agee’s kidney to Burley, said that nationally, there are 100,000 people awaiting a kidney transplant. However, there are only about 20,000 transplants a year, leaving the list of those waiting to get a kidney at 90,000 to 100,000 because number of donors.
“Truth be told there are actually enough people out there who could be living donors. We could solve the organ shortage through living donations,’’ Dr. Locke said.
A policy like Birmingham’s will make it a lot easier for potential donors to make the decision to give the gift of life, Dr. Locke said, adding that people can get more information at www.uabmedicine.org/transplant.
When Agee, 49, heard that the city had a new policy, it left her in tears. She loved the idea, saying that the policy removes one less worry an employee may have if they are contemplating taking off to be an organ donor or trying to rush back to work during their recovery time. “I wouldn’t have been able to rest, relax or recuperate … if it wasn’t for city support,’’ Agee said. “This new policy is not only going to change lives. I know it is going to save lives.’’
“Put In God’s Hands”
Burley, 66, applauds the city’s efforts, too, thanking the mayor and Agee, but also stressing the importance of people getting their kidneys tested once a year. “Don’t think about waiting until you feel something,’’ he said. “When you feel something, it’s too late. Go get checked.’’
Life for him today is good, he said. He has the love of his life in his wife of 12 years, Bobbie Knight, chairman of the Birmingham Times Media Group; children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren; and is planning to host a celebrity golf tournament at Greystone Golf and Country Club on Oct. 16 to continue to raise awareness about kidney disease and transplants.
Like Agee, Burley puts everything’s in God’s hands.
“When you put it in God’s hands, he’s going to give you two choices: He’s going to heal you or bring you to heaven,’’ said Burley. “With those two choices, I’m good.”