Florida today column about my 09 kidney transplant by Suzy Leonard Fleming

George White is a writer, a poet, an artist and a great banjo picker.

As of Friday, he’s also an organ transplant recipient.

Last week, George sounded more like his old self than he had in almost two years.

His penultimate late-night trip to dialysis had taken a lot out of him, but he seemed energetic and upbeat.

This week, he’s living a cliché. It’s the first week of the rest of his life.

The Palm Bay man’s journey began on Labor Day 2007. While thousands gathered in Cocoa Beach for the annual National Kidney Foundation Surf Festival, he wasn’t feeling so hot. A trip to a walk-in clinic offered a hint as to why. His blood pressure was 260/200. Normal should be about 120/80.

“They gave me medication to knock it down,” he said, “and I thought, ‘Wow! I got out of this with no problem.’ ”

No such luck.

He went back to the doctor on Sept. 11 to get the results from lab tests. He was in full kidney failure.

Since then, his world has revolved around thrice-weekly dialysis treatments.

Lots of people around here know George. For more than 20 years, he’s covered news for FLORIDA TODAY, from Palm Bay to Titusville. Chances are, he’s written a story about or taken a picture of you, your child or your neighbor.

Unless he’s on stage with a banjo in his hands, George doesn’t fight for the spotlight. Though at 6-foot-5 and with a rumbling bass voice, it’s impossible for him to blend into the background.

He still seems taken aback by the attention he’s gotten. By the love and support of his wife, Rosemary. By the packed house at a benefit in his honor last summer at Lou’s Blues in Indialantic. By the encouragement of friends and family.

“My sister, Lisa White, who is an attorney in Knoxville, Tenn., offered me a kidney,” he said. “I didn’t really ask her for it. It’s really such a blessing.”

And while this week is all about celebration, there’ve been disappointments along the way.

“I was going to have a transplant on April 10, but found out I had an abdominal aortic aneurysm,” he said. “That was a sure killer. They had to get that repaired before they could do the transplant. Because I’m so tall, they put the largest stint the surgeon had ever done.”

That surgery went well, and the transplant was back on track.

His family has rented a house in Orlando to be near George and Lisa while they’re in Florida Hospital South.

By the end of the week, both should be home and recovering. George’s daughter, Elizabeth, turns 11 Wednesday. With luck, his homecoming can be her birthday present.

“I’ll be in the hospital about five days, but after that, will have to come back and forth a lot to make sure it’s not rejecting,” George said, “and I’ll be on 50 pills a day. I think I’ll just put them in a cereal bowl and eat ’em like Jethro (from ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’).”

Taking so many pills, though, is a small price to pay to get off dialysis. But even that experience has come with blessings.

“I’ve made a lot of friends there,” he said. “I took my banjo over to the dialysis clinic last night and played for ’em. They were all like, ‘Wow.’ ”

And so my friend and colleague nears the end of this phase in his life, eager to start the next.

“It’s really been a journey,” he said. “I’m not the same person. . . . I’ve earned all this time now through hardship. It’s made me a better person. That’s for sure. You appreciate your friends, appreciate your family, appreciate life, just living. The sun, wow, the wind, geeze.”

Contact Leonard at sleonard@floridatoday.com.

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