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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited. 

For the week of Dec 31, 2003 - Jan 6, 2004


Random act of
kindness saves a life

Two men, two lives, one miracle

Express Staff Writer

By giving up a part of himself, Ethan Jensen made Lee Cook whole.

Healing, by definition, is a return to health or soundness. That’s what Utah resident Jensen did for Cook when he donated his kidney to the Carey schoolteacher last summer.

Lee Cook (right) and Ethan Jensen a couple of days after their surgeries in June. Courtesy photo

Cook described Jensen’s act of generosity as nothing short of a miracle. Given the fact that the two first met the day before the transplant last June it is hard to disagree.

"It defies all logic," Cook said recently, six months after the successful surgery. "I don’t have the answer or capacity to understand it other than it was meant to be. It was nothing short of a miracle."

Lee Cook is 55. Ethan Jensen is 22. The year of 2003 has come to an end—and both of their lives have been transformed by one random act of kindness.


Learning of the disease

In many ways Lee Cook is as old-fashioned as the Lawrence Welk show and as straight as Highway 20 which runs through Carey, Idaho, the town of 300 in which he grew up.

Cook played basketball for Carey School from 1964-66. He married his college sweetheart Sandy. After graduating from Boise State University the pair returned to the Cook family farm in Carey to raise cattle and children and hay in equal abundance.

Their family consists of five boys, James, Cameron, Aaron, Lee Jay, and Tyler, and a daughter, Kelly. All attended Carey School where Cook has enjoyed a productive career as a health and physical education teacher.

In addition, Cook has been one of the most successful athletic coaches in southern Idaho. He was head basketball coach for 18 years ending in 2002. During the 1990s Cook’s Carey basketball posted a 184-86 record. His 2001 Carey squad made it all the way to the State 1A championship game.

It has been a good, full life.

Lee Cook has reveled in every busy minute of it.

And it has been busy—hunting and fishing with his boys, winning a couple of state football championships as defensive coordinator of the Carey football team, guiding the boys’ basketball team, working with students in class, worshipping in his LDS church.

But it seems that no person, no matter how bright and shiny a life they may lead, escapes without experiencing life’s trials and tribulations.

Lurking in the background of Lee Cook’s happy existence was an eight-syllable monster named Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD).

Healthy kidneys remove waste from the body through the production of urine. They regulate blood pressure, blood volume and the chemical composition of blood.

PKD is an inherited renal disorder characterized by the presence of cysts in both kidneys. Normal kidney tissue is replaced by fluid-filled sacs that become larger as the disease progresses leading to high blood pressure, loss of kidney function and ultimately end-stage renal failure.

In the most simplistic terms, renal failure is the inability of the kidneys to remove waste from the body.

Treatment depends on the cause and severity of the disease, but it can include the use of diuretics, protein restriction, dialysis and, ultimately, organ transplant.

Several of Cook’s family members have wrestled with PKD, including his brother, several cousins and also his father, Garth Cook, who died in a car accident near Carey on his way to dialysis in Twin Falls in May of 2001.

"I had a lot of relatives who had heart disease and high blood pressure and several suffered from strokes," Cook said.

Lee himself suffered a major heart attack in December 1998. Luckily for him he was close to major medical services at the time. A clot buster was administered and major damage to the heart was averted or else Cook could have been "pushing up daisies on the big hill," as he puts it now.

For the next four years, he was generally healthy. But he experienced what he described as a gradual slowing down.

"My energy level was the first thing I noticed. I could not do the things I wanted to do," he said.

"I would sit down on the couch after school and fall right asleep. I was never diagnosed but I had a little bit of trouble with depression. I was agitated and things bothered me and would build up."

Despite the mounting symptoms, Cook said he did not consider PKU the culprit.

"I was probably in denial. I knew my dad and brother had it, but I thought not me, not me," he said.

One person did notice the change in him, Lee’s wife Sandy, and she urged him to see a doctor.

All denial was stripped away in February 2003, when Twin Falls nephrologist Dr. Mike Mallea issued the ultimate wake-up call.

Cook recounted, "He asked me if I knew what my creatinine levels were and I said no. Normal is 1.0 to 1.3. Mine were approaching 7.0, and 8.0 is kidney failure. He said, ‘your condition is really serious. You have about three months. Have you thought about someone who could give you a kidney’?"

Cook said he did not have any donors and Mallea asked him, ‘what about your wife? Is your relationship good enough?’

With Type O blood Sandy is a universal donor, but she hesitated knowing her children could potentially have the disorder and might need a kidney as well.

Mallea reassured her by saying she would be too old to donate by the time one of her children might need a kidney. So she agreed to give her husband the ultimate gift.

Over the next three months, the Cooks underwent a flurry of tests to see if they were medically compatible.

Lee was subjected to testing more rigorous than he had ever inflicted on any student, including a psychological profile to see if he was a "good or bad" candidate for an organ transplant. The profile tried to determine if Cook could handle the impact of having someone else’s organ in his body.

Cook passed his tests.

Sandy was deemed a good match and a date of June 5, 2003 was set for the couple’s operations to take place at LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah.

At the same time, Lee’s name was added to the transplant list along with 59,553 other Americans.

The kidney is the most transplanted organ according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. Some 13,754 people have been waiting for one-to-two years for an organ, and 6,024 people have been on a national waiting list for more than five years.

It seemed that Cook’s wait would be minimal, with his wife as a donor.

But, two weeks before the scheduled transplant, Sandy underwent a renal angiogram and the results were not good. Sandy had three arteries attached to one kidney and four to another. The discovery meant taking one of her kidneys would be too risky and she could not do it.

"We were devastated," Cook said. "I had no prospects on any surgery happening. I was back to square one."


Ethan’s big decision

Three hundred miles away in Layton, Utah, Ethan Jensen was wrestling with the universal dilemma of a 22-year-old, along the lines of "what am I going to do with my life?"

He was living at home with his parents. The music store where he was employed was going out of business. The relationship with the girl he hoped to marry was over.

By chance, Jensen watched a 30-second commercial about the life-saving potential of organ donation. The idea resonated in him.

After all, what was nobler than saving someone’s life?

Jensen called the hospital and filled out a donor application. It crossed the desk of Kristie Baker, a transplant coordinator at the LDS Hospital. Just two days before, Baker had delivered the devastating news about Sandy’s renal angiogram.

This time, she had a much more optimistic message for the Cooks.

Lee recalled, "She said, ‘We’re working on something here. There is a person who wants to be a Good Samaritan donor and it seems to be a good match’."

Baker called back May 30 and told Lee that he was an "excellent match" with the donor. She asked if Lee and Sandy could be in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 2 for further testing.

On Tuesday, June 3, blood was drawn from both Lee and Ethan to see how it would mix and react. It was the final test. The results were good and the operation was a go.

"Do you want to meet this person?" Lee’s doctors asked him.

Cook and Jensen were introduced on Wednesday, the day before the surgeries.

"I didn’t know what to say," Lee recalled of his first meeting with Ethan. "I had an overwhelming feeling of gratitude for someone doing something for me that I could not do for myself."

The two men made small talk.

At 22, Ethan was the youngest Samaritan donor ever in Utah.

Initially Ethan’s parents were opposed to their son donating his kidney, Cook later learned.

"They said he was so young and what if he needed them, but he felt he wanted to do something good for someone," Cook said.

But the main thing Cook re-learned from Jensen’s example was something the schoolteacher had already known from 55 years of living—that is, the goodness in the world.

"There is so much written about bad people and bad things in our world, but there are so many more good people who do good things," Cook said. "Ethan is one of them—the good people."

On Thursday morning, June 5, Lee and Ethan underwent the transplant procedure. Ironically, it was in the same time frame planned for when Sandy was going to be the donor.

"It is just a miracle we happened to get together," Lee said. "It happened in a span of two weeks time in spite of me. I don’t have the answer or capacity to understand it other than it was meant to be. It defies all logic."

The day after the transplant, Lee said he was feeling healthier than he had in months.

"I felt so much better the next day," Lee said.

He felt so well, in fact, that after five days in the hospital Cook’s doctors packed him off to recuperate at an aunt’s house in Roy, Utah.

The recovery has been going well.

"There have been no complications and my health has been restored," Lee said.

Cook’s physical health wasn’t the only thing that underwent a transformation. His heart changed as well.

"It is the most spiritual experience I have ever gone through," Lee said.

"I feel like I been a pretty positive, happy go-lucky person, but I think I am more tolerant, quicker to say thank-you.

"My kids talk about Ethan like he is a miracle worker. He’s someone who has given their dad a new lease on life. I had quit playing basketball and hunting and fishing. This past Thanksgiving we did all those things again."

Like the rest of us, Lee has wondered what motivated Ethan to donate a kidney to a complete stranger.

He has wondered if he could or would do the same thing if the situation were reversed.

Cook said about Jensen, "He has tried to describe it to me and I cannot believe he didn’t lay there wondering, what if this doesn’t work. But he was completely satisfied he was doing the right thing. He never wavered."

And the ultimate lesson? It’s a mystery, but a transforming one.

Cook said, "I don’t have any real answers. I think there is a purpose in life, things left to accomplish and maybe I am supposed to do something for someone else.

"I know I have more of closeness with my kids and wife—the most important people in my life—and Ethan made this all possible."



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