Vicky Taylor’s eye-catching yard sign caught attention of Jody Smith. He sat in her driveway staring at the sign. She needed a new kidney, soon. He stared for a long time. The red sign in the shape of a kidney had this message: Care to Share Your Spare KIDNEY. Call U.T. Medical Center: 865-305-5340
She also had T-shirts with the same message and Lamar Advertising donated a billboard in West Knoxville with her message.
“I sat there and just kept on staring at her sign. And the thought that kept going through my mind was – ‘Who would I be not to go and try and help her? I had to try,’” he says now. He signed up. He was tested. He was the perfect match.
On March 28, 2023, Smith’s left kidney was removed during a two-hour surgery and then transplanted into Taylor by the University of Tennessee Medical Center’s Transplant Center team of surgeons. Today, Taylor and Smith are home, still recovering and still talking every day without fail.
We typically feature an “Our Town Hero” every Monday that introduces you to an emergency services/first responders in our community – police officers, sheriff’s deputies, Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers, firefighters with the Knoxville Fire Department and Rural Metro Fire.
And this past week that search led us to Smith – who is an emergency first responder and has been for 26 years. In the next month or two he will be off light duty and back with his crew as KFD Capt. Jody Smith on Engine Ladder 18 at Station 18 on Weisgarber Road – on the Blue shift. He is a Knoxville native, reared on Strawberry Plains Pike and a 1993 graduate of Knoxville Baptist Christian School.
Smith, 47, joined KFD in 1997 when he was 21. And not unlike many firefighters, the profession picked him. “I was 9-years-old and one day my dad took me with him to a buy a car from a firefighter at Station 16 on Asheville Highway,” he remembers well. “So being a little boy I walked through the station and the guys there talked to me about all they did, showed me the engines and all and then let me sit in a fire truck. That was all it took. That’s all I ever wanted to do and I’m still doing it and loving it.”
When Smith was sitting in Taylor’s driveway looking at her sign, his memory took him back to the day he raised his right hand and repeated the KFD Oath of Office. This sentence from that oath is why he knew he must help Taylor: “… I further agree that I will faithfully, honestly and impartially, without fear, favor or prejudice, and to the best of my skill and ability, perform the duties of Firefighter in order to save lives, protect property and uphold the laws of my community and city, so help me God.”
His focus was on two words in that oath – “save lives.”
“I swore to uphold that oath and saving Vicky’s life was something I could not ignore. I had to try and help her. I didn’t know if I’d be a match or anything at that point. But I just had to do it,” he says.
Taylor’s kidney problems began in 2020 when she was 54. “I went to the ER and they called in a kidney doctor and said my kidney functions were dropping. So, I began a form of dialysis with a tube in my stomach that filters the blood. I did it at night from 6 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. seven days a week. Then in 2021, I did other treatments four days a week for two years.”
In 2022, her kidneys were failing and that’s when the transplant possibility began. She had to go through test after test and even more tests once Smith was in the picture as a possible donor. That continued until this past spring when the date was set.
Smith and Taylor didn’t just recently meet. These two have been family and friends for 25 years. Vicky is married to Jody’s ex-wife’s father-in-law, Fred Taylor. She says Fred and Jody usually talk daily.
“When Jody told me he was going to do this to help me, I was so emotional. I couldn’t grasp it at first. He’s really wanting to do this for me, I asked myself. Is this a joke? It’s unbelievable what he’s done for me. The tears poured out and I was thanking God for everything, especially for Jody. This man is such a special person,” she said.
Taylor works at the Fort Sanders Regional Physicians Surgery Center in its business office.
When Smith underwent the initial blood tests the verdict was – a perfect match. “The markers all lined up and I was ready for this,” Smith said. But during the year before the transplant, the road had a few potholes to negotiate. Smith’s testing initially revealed a blockage in his heart, which turned out not to be true. His creatinine levels in his kidneys were off. Those eventually became acceptable. Three months before the transplant Taylor had to have rotator cuff surgery.
“Get this,” Smith said. “We were such a perfect match that my kidney started working in her before they had finished her surgery.”
Today, Taylor says, her new kidney’s function is completely normal. Doctors transplanted it into space in front of her abdomen. “So now I have three kidneys. They didn’t remove my two failing kidneys,” she said.
Smith says he learned a great deal about kidneys and the transplant program at UT Medical Center. “There are actually benefits to donating a kidney and having just one kidney. You will have only a 3.1% chance of kidney problems in your lifetime,” he explained. “That one kidney becomes what they call a super kidney. It gets stronger over time and functions like two kidneys. It protects itself and takes care of the body.”
Taylor and Smith are now major cheerleaders for the UTMC transplant program for those considering being a donor. “The staff at the transplant center were the most caring and compassionate people you will find,” Smith said. “They were so kind and encouraging. Not only were they concerned about Vicki’s health, but they also make the donor’s health top priority, before and after surgery. I’m so thankful for them and their commitment to the kidney transplant program.”
Learn more about the Transplant Center here.
Six weeks after surgery Smith has not second-guessed his decision. “I have never given it a second thought when this started and I still don’t. I never worried about my outcome from the surgery or my health. I just wanted Vicky to be OK and live a long life. This is a story about her, not me.”
Yep, Taylor said, he’s always saying that about this – “That it’s all about me, not him. Let me tell everyone how special he is. I went through a lot myself but then the donor has to go through it all too and he did that for me. He’s a miracle man in my life. He’s my angel forever.”
Tom King has been the editor of newspapers in Texas and California and also worked in Tennessee and Georgia.