CHICAGO — Robert King was driving home from work recently – Lake Michigan dancing to the east, the skyline glistening to the north – when traffic on Lake Shore Drive slowed to a crawl.
A green-and-white van that sped past King moments earlier, lights and sirens blaring, sat along the roadside in a mangled heap. King pulled over to see if anyone needed help.
“I asked, ‘Hey, what’s going on? Everybody all right?’ ” King, 50, recalled. “This gentleman said, ‘Yeah, can you please help us? Can you get us to the hospital?’ I said, ‘Sure. No problem. Let me pull out of the way.’ “
The gentleman, it turns out, was Kofi Atiemo, an organ transplant surgeon from Northwestern Memorial Hospital. The green-and-white vehicle, which had been T-boned while waiting at a stoplight, was an organ transplant vehicle on its way to Northwestern. A patient was prepped and waiting to be transplanted with its contents.
“There were lots of people just driving by, but Robert was willing to stop,” Atiemo said. “Before he could even say anything else, Justin threw the organs in the back of the car, and we hopped in. It all happened so quickly.”
(Justin is Justin Smith, an organ procurement specialist at Northwestern.)
“As I’m driving, that’s when he told me he was a doctor and it was organs inside of the boxes,” King said. “I was like, ‘Wow.’ I was just in shock. I thought he could’ve just been somebody taking food to the hospital. I thought it could’ve been files or something. I don’t know!”
It wasn’t files. It was a liver, a kidney and a pancreas that Atiemo had just procured from a deceased donor at MetroSouth Medical Center in Blue Island. The donor gave her heart, too, but a heart team transported that in a separate vehicle, eventually heading to a patient in Tennessee.
The kidney and pancreas went to a single patient at Northwestern. The liver, Atiemo said, was shipped to a patient at another hospital.
“The amount of time an organ is out of the body is critical to how well that organ is going to function in the recipient,” said Kevin Cmunt, president and CEO of Gift of Hope Organ and Tissue Donor Network. “We do everything we can to minimize the time the organ is in transport.”
That means keeping a transport vehicle, equipped with lights and sirens, waiting outside the procurement hospital for the surgeon and his or her team.
“We only have a few hours that these organs are capable of being transplanted,” Cmunt said. “Robert’s quick action and his generosity to stop and help on his Saturday night, the night before Easter, that saved lives.”
On Wednesday, April 24, Cmunt honored King at the Chicago Organ Summit, an annual gathering of government officials, medical practitioners, donation advocates, and families of organ and tissue donors held at the JW Marriott.
King brought his wife, Marleen, and their 5-year-old son, Royal. King was recognized onstage alongside Atiemo. He shook hands with Secretary of State Jesse White.
“Actually Jesse White was my gym teacher for a year so I had already met him,” King said. “I know he didn’t remember me though.”
King grew up on Chicago’s North Side. White, prior to launching his political career, worked as a teacher and administrator in Chicago Public Schools. He taught King at the now-shuttered Schiller Elementary School.
“They told me, ‘You know you saved a couple lives. You’re a hero,’ ” King said. “I was like, ‘Thank you, but I don’t really look at myself as a hero.’ I’m just glad I was able to do a good deed, help out my fellow man. I believe in that. I believe in the golden rule, you know, treat people the way you want to be treated. That’s all I was doing.”
The day after the Organ Summit, King was back at Infiniti of Orland Park, where he works as a client adviser.
“Donation transplantation is a very complicated business with a lot of fast-moving parts,” Cmunt said. “Here was just a regular Chicagoan who, through the kindness of his heart, helped us honor a donor family who was kind enough to donate the most precious gift anyone can ever give.”
One woman, whose privacy Cmunt is ethically bound to protect, donated all of those organs King helped transport.
“She was a younger person who shouldn’t be gone from this Earth,” Cmunt said. “The ability to rewrite the end of that story is really what organ donation is about. Robert King, who stopped and saved the day, helped give that family a living legacy.”
King said he was just grateful to meet folks from Gift of Hope and the organ donation community.
“They’re the real heroes,” King said. “That’s a great cause. I’m just a humble person. I don’t need to be in a limelight. They’re the heroes of this story.”
Some stories — certainly this one — have room for more than one hero.
(Contact Heidi Stevens at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter: @heidistevens13.)
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