They met as Army paratroopers stationed in Ft. Bragg, N.C., and last saw each other in 1998. One went to Georgia. The other, Virginia. But as the lives of two men moved in different directions, a friendship forged in uniform saved a man with failing organs, a call of duty now fulfilled.
“I was scuba diving in Honduras last August, it was paradise,” said Kai Johns, sitting on a bed at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. “And when I got back, I ended up going to the emergency room where doctors told me I had six percent kidney function.”
Johns was suffering through kidney failure.
He was placed on a waiting list, with the prospect of an extended search for a donor an agonizing outlook for his family.
His wife took to Facebook, writing a post six lines long.
“Time to start talking,” the paragraph began. “Help me save Kai because I can't donate for other reasons. I love this man more than anything in the world and need to keep him around for a while longer.”
Sgt. First Class Rob Harmon saw the post.
He now serves with the 3rd Infantry Division Sustainment Brigade in Ft. Stewart, GA, more than 600 miles away. But his friendship formed with Johns at Ft. Bragg created an unbroken brotherhood, with Harmon immediately asking if he could get tested, and donate his kidney.
“I asked my wife first because of our kids, and she immediately told me yes,” Harmon said in an interview Thursday. “I began the process within a day, and found that I was a match in mid-March.”
Both Johns and Harmon reconnected, having followed each other’s lives since the early days of Facebook. But as the transplant date approached, feelings of doubt mixed with early moments of self-assurance.
“My wife dropped me off at the airport and I had a complete meltdown,” Harmon said. “Only because I didn’t know what was going to happen next. But, after five minutes of hugging, I got over it.”
“As we got closer to the surgery, I thought, ‘I don’t want to do this,’” Johns added. “Let me go back to dialysis. I don’t want to do this anymore.”
Both continued to prepare, and Georgetown surgeons performed the operation April 27. A week later, both are out of the hospital, with few signs of the operation or fleeting reservations.
“The first thing I did when I woke up, I made them roll me over to Rob,” Johns said. “Because I knew that Rob was in post-op, and I had to put eyes on him. So I said, ‘roll me over to Rob so I can make sure he’s alright.’”
The friends are now recovering in Johns’ Ashburn home, eager to build strength and see the Nationals play at home. Reese's peanut butter cheesecake will soon return to the menu, forbidden during months of dialysis.
Both Johns and Harmon hope their story will move others to act, if someone is known to be in desperate need of a transplant. A bond between the two now courses deeper, with their lives and friendship now renewed.
“Being in the Army for as long as I have, you move around a lot, so you’re forced to make friends quick and trust the people you work with,” Harmon said. “Some of those trusting relationships turn into deep bonds. And that’s what I have with Kai.”