A Gift of Presidential Proportions

A Gift of Presidential Proportions
Nobody understood why Bruce King took a job at the University of South Dakota. But the decision may have saved his life.
By Ibram Rogers

Some of his friends thought he was foolish to become the chief diversity officer at the University of South Dakota in March of 2005.

“Why South Dakota?” Bruce King says his friends would ask. “There aren’t any Black folk there.”

To them, the concept of a Black man from the South Side of Chicago moving to a state and working at a university that were both less than 2 percent Black was unthinkable.

However, after two tumultuous years, King now knows and advises “many of us need to start opening our minds and ourselves to new possibilities. Because you never know what kind of gifts you will receive in return.”

King received the ultimate gift for opening his mind — a second chance at life.

Two months after taking the position in Vermillion, S.D., King, 44, was diagnosed with renal kidney failure.

For almost two years, he tried to fight it off with dialysis. It didn’t work.
Chemotherapy was used next. It didn’t work.
A new kidney became his last resort.
He needed a donor.

To King’s surprise, the donor emerged from the highest office of the very university that some had urged him not to go.
USD President James W. Abbott donated his kidney to King, who received it in a successful three-hour operation at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., in early June.

Abbott, a former state lawmaker and gubernatorial candidate, returned to work a week later. King stayed at the clinic until the end of June; took July off to rest and returned to USD on a part-time basis Aug. 1. King says that everything so far is going well.

“The kidney is a good match for my body and there has been no apparent signs of rejection or reaction,” says King, who is taking anti-rejection medications and a cocktail of other necessary drugs.

Even though he says his health is progressing, he says he’s still amazed that the life-saving kidney came from “a White guy from South Dakota.” Abbott was born in Irene, S.D., a town of about 400 residents. King, meanwhile, hails from Chicago, a city that is closing in on three million residents.  

His friends don’t believe it either.

“People really couldn’t comprehend it,” King says. “It blows my mind and blows everyone’s mind that I tell, even my barber.”

It hasn’t blown Abbott’s mind though.

“I am not being disingenuous when I say this, but it just didn’t seem like that big of a deal to me,” Abbott says. “I didn’t see us as Black or White or big town or little town. What I thought about was Bruce’s three kids and his lovely wife and the fact that those kids could grow up without a father if somebody didn’t step forward.”

And, Abbott says, the “thought of living with one kidney didn’t particularly scare me.”

The idea didn’t rattle him because he knows several people who do it. His father-in-law, brother-in-law and his closest friend from college, who had his kidney removed when he was 19, all live with one kidney.
Nevertheless, Abbott, 59, was worried that his own health could prevent him from being the donor.

“When you are my age, there are a lot of reasons why a doctor might say that it’s not a good idea,” Abbott says. “I wanted to make sure that I was in really good health.”

King initially tried to keep his May 2005 diagnosis a secret. But within the month he decided to go public, sending out an e-mail to all of his colleagues. At that point, King says, he wasn’t even thinking about finding a donor, particularly since he had two brothers.

Soon after, Abbott approached King about possibly being a donor, but King says he didn’t think too much of it.

By December 2006, King says his doctor told him that he needed to start thinking about a kidney transplant. Fittingly, also during that month, Abbott approached King in December, informing him that he had to get his weight and blood pressure under control before he could be the donor, King says.

Abbott hired a personal trainer and got his health in order. In March, he informed King that he was ready to be tested.

They were a match. And two months later, the transplant took place.
“Why am I in South Dakota?” King says he once asked himself. “Now I know that’s where I needed to go to find healing.”

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