When Kenneth Walker emailed his former D.C. high school classmates last November asking for a kidney, he knew it was a stretch.
“It is nearly impossible for me to come to terms with what I must ask of you,” Walker wrote, “and that is your help in finding a kidney donor so that I can have a chance to improve my quality of life.”
Walker made the plea to his fellow Archbishop Carroll High School alumni — most of whom he had not spoken to in decades.
But one alum who lives across the country responded within minutes.
“I’ll take any tests you need,” said Charlie Ball, who now lives in California.
On April 16, Walker received Ball's kidney during a transplant surgery at George Washington University Hospital, as previously reported by WTVR. Surgeon Joseph Keith Melancon said the operations went well. Ball was discharged the following Thursday, Walker on Friday.
“Transplants are pretty close to drive-by operations these days apparently,” Walker said in a phone interview with News4.
Walker, a journalist, was working as National Public Radio's Africa bureau chief in South Africa when he got sick and received the wrong treatment, he said. Eventually, the misdiagnosis led to his kidneys crashing multiple times, even going code blue once.
He traveled back to D.C. and was added to the list for cadaver donors from George Washington University Hospital, MedStar Georgetown University Hospital and Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Walker said he also started looking for live donors and began reaching out to friends, family members and colleagues, but none of them were a match.
Then, a friend from high school suggested that Walker send an email to their alumni group. He took the advice.
“Well, how do you ask someone for a kidney?” Walker said. “I finally figured out the language I wanted to use, and everyone said you need to be as straightforward as you can be.”
He got an email list from his former high school and sent out his request.
Walker said he was “pleasantly surprised” when Ball responded so quickly. But he wasn't “terribly excited” in case it turned out Ball wasn’t a match.
Walker and Ball are 1969 graduates of Archbishop Carroll High School, but they didn’t know each other too well during their time there. They do remember acting in their school’s rendition of “West Side Story.” Their characters were in the same gang, the Jets.
“When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way. From your first cigarette to your last dying day,” Walker recalled the first lines to “The Jet Song” from the play. Ball also admitted that those are the only lines he remembers from the musical.
While the tests to see if Ball was a match were extensive, “he had no complaints whatsoever,” Melancon said. Ball did most of the tests in California and went to D.C. in March for the final tests.
“I stayed willing,” Ball said. “Kenny’s sitting here waiting forever. It’s easy enough to go to a local hospital to get the blood work and all the tests done.”
The donated kidney started to work immediately in Walker’s body, Melancon said. It was functioning normally after just a few days. “That’s a great sign. It bodes very well for the future,” he said.
Ball’s kidney was surprisingly “young,” and in very good shape for someone more than 60 years old, Melancon added. Ball said he was happy to know he was healthier than he thought.
Ball wasn’t the only one from their alma mater to help out. Mike Houle, also a 1969 graduate of Archbishop Carroll High School, started a GoFundMe page to help Walker and Ball. He also started a Facebook page to post updates about the two.
“Mike was my classmate and college roommate,” Ball said. “He’s pretty integral in this process.”
Walker refused the money, saying that he didn’t need it.
“Because I lived here and didn’t have extra expenses associated with my kidney transplant, I decided I didn’t need any money. All of it goes to Charlie,” he said.
“That’s the kind of guy Kenny is,” Houle said.
For Ball, the money was helpful. He used some of it for travel expenses and hotel stays. The rest is going to charity for kidney research to help raise awareness, he said.
In the meantime, Ball and Walker say they are on their way to a quick recovery.
“I’m not feeling like putting my roller blades on today, but maybe sometime soon,” Ball said. “I feel fantastic and grateful for the opportunity.”
"I’m feeling still pretty weak and tired and sore but otherwise remarkably well,” Walker said.