Don St. Dennis has survived another round with the war in Vietnam he departed 50 years ago.
St. Dennis, 70, a retired businessman and educator, was stricken in 2016 with kidney failure and related medical issues tied to his exposure to U.S. spraying of the chemical-defoliant Agent Orange that’s still killing.
In July, St. Dennis received a kidney from a generous donor that has restored his health.
“I feel better than I have for years and I’m getting stronger every day,” said St. Dennis, who has coped with good humor with the health challenges that caused early retirement. “Walking 2 miles most every day. Mixing in a little yoga and some hand weights.
“I set two goals going into this. One of course was that the surgery goes well. The second was to be a good patient. Every time a nurse, or technician, lab assistant or cleaner entered my room, I greeted them with the biggest smile I could muster. They’ve had a tough time of it these past months [with the COVID crisis].”
St. Dennis was three years ahead of me at DeLaSalle High School. He and I stayed in touch over his years at Toro and as a graduate-school professor at St. Mary’s University in Minneapolis. He drew on his experience for business students on how commerce, culture and educational relationships are much better investments than war.
Two years ago, I was rejected as a kidney donor for St. Dennis in a matched-donor program through the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Mayo Clinic. I felt like I had failed a vet and good man.
Don inspired me with his gratitude at my try, including four days of tests at the Mayo Clinic while staying at the amazing, volunteer-funded Gift of Life Transplant House.
St. Dennis found patience and resolve in his Catholic faith and Buddhism he first encountered in Vietnam. And he was moved by Maya Moore, the Minnesota Lynx star and human rights stalwart who once told the Star Tribune that she “fixed her face” when things get tough.
“Don’t pout, fix your face,” St. Dennis said in 2018. “I try to be that. Stay calm. Take life in the moment. I never counted the days when I was in 'Nam."
My 2018 column was read by a generous former colleague, Lynn Closway, a medical writer at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix. She worked with Don in the 1980s at the former IDS Financial Services. I worked with Lynn in the late 1970s at the Mankato Free Press.
“My inspiration for thinking about being a living-kidney donor was the patients I have written about at Mayo,” added Closway. “They [told me] how empowered they felt and how relatively easy it was. I am feeling great, have renewed energy and I’m back at work.
“Don’s energy is boundless. He was up, celebrating the July 4th holiday while recuperating [from surgery on July 2] at Mayo in Rochester.
“Psychologically, donating has been a gift to me. While some people questioned my willingness to undergo a surgery I didn’t need, I convinced them that I had a ‘spare’ and that my healthy kidney would go to someone very deserving. I never doubted my decision. They would agree if they met Don St. Dennis.’’
St. Dennis and Closway weren’t mutual matches. Through the paired-donor program, Closway donated first to someone who was a match for her kidney. St. Dennis, tough but weakened by related health challenges since 2018, was strong enough to be cleared for the next available kidney he could use. The fresh kidney worked perfectly.
Lynn Closway and other organ donors are American heroes. They save lives.
The research shows that donors often, after recovering physically from surgery, feel great about their generous deed. Their remaining kidney usually expands to increase function. And there is need. According to the National Kidney Foundation, of the 120,000-plus Americans on the waiting list for a lifesaving organ transplant, more than 100,000 need a kidney. Only about 17,000 receive one each year. That means, a lot of folks, including St. Dennis for a few years, need dialysis to clean their blood. About 12 Americans die daily from kidney failure.
Dr. Raja Kandaswamy, a transplant surgeon at the University of Minnesota, told me in 2018 that, in Minnesota alone, nearly 3,000 patients need a second chance at a healthy life through a transplanted organ, mostly kidneys.
Don and Sue St. Dennis met in 1968, when they worked part-time at Dayton’s downtown store during their senior years of high school. They married in 1970, just before Don shipped to Vietnam. Sue, their two sons and four grandchildren, are the mainstays of Don’s life.
Don St. Dennis, a Bronze Star winner who served in combat zones, opposed the war. He also volunteered overnight at his base medical clinic with troops who struggled with addiction. His newfound health means he can resume a lifelong practice of volunteering, in gratitude for his precious gift of life.
More information about organ donations: United Network for Organ Sharing, or www.unos.org.