LEESBURG, Ga. -- When we think of birthday gifts, we often envision brightly wrapped packages with bows and string. But for one Leesburg man, his 62nd birthday present came in the form of a second chance at life.
Zeb "Tommy" Jewell, who turned 62 on Aug. 22, said the kidney he received earlier in the month was the best birthday present he's ever had.
The Vietnam vet and Purple Heart recipient, who braved shrapnel wounds on the right side of his body during the war, was diagnosed with a rare kidney disease in 1972, two years after returning from fighting overseas.
Jewell's wife, Donna, said the couple knew the disease would eventually progress to his kidneys, and in 2007 Jewell was placed on dialysis.
As Jewell's kidneys continued to deteriorate from the disease, the couple was approached about the possibility of a kidney transplant.
Donna Jewell said after several family members were rejected as possible kidney donors, her husband was placed on the national transplant list and the family began the long process of waiting for a donor.
The Jewells found themselves among the 2,800 other families in the state of Georgia that are waiting for organ and tissue transplants and the more than 100,000 waiting nationwide.
"There are so many people that need kidneys and other organs," said Donna Jewell. "There is a terrible need for it, and we didn't realize that until this happened."
The Jewells said the four-year wait for a kidney was almost too much for the family, as Tommy Jewell steadily declined in health.
"He just continued to get worse and worse," Donna Jewell said of her husband. "It takes a long time to find a match, and as we stayed on the list the number of years we had to wait went up. They told us it might take seven years to find a kidney."
According to information from the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), there are currently 86 million registered organ, eye and tissue donors in the United States, but donating organs is a complex process and many donors are ruled out for transplants.
Organ donors' blood type, tissue type, body weight, and size are matched against patients on transplant lists to find the best matches. Preference is also given to recipients from the same geographic area as the donor because timing is a critical element in the organ recovery process. This process, which is designed to ensure the best possible outcome for organ recipients, generally results in long wait times for those on transplant waiting lists like the Jewell family.
UNOS predicts that 18 people die daily while waiting for an organ match, a statistic the Jewells knew all too well.
"We had that thought in the back of our minds as the years went on," said Donna Jewell. "We are optimistic people, so we tried not to dwell on that possibility."
The Jewells said the waiting was a hard adjustment.
"There is a lot of travel involved for blood work and tests," said Donna Jewell. "We were on two organ lists, so we knew that a call could come any day and any time that there was a kidney available. We had to man our phones very carefully. If you don't get there (to the hospital) in time, they give it (the organ) to someone else on the list."
On Aug. 1, the couple received the call that would change their lives.
Around 7 a.m., Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta called the Jewells' residence with news of a kidney that matched.
"My heart kind of fluttered when they called to speak to my husband," Donna Jewell said.
Tommy Jewell said he was asleep when the hospital called but was relieved to hear the news. The couple drove to Atlanta, and the hospital immediately began bloodwork on Jewell in preparation for the transplant.
"It was a happy day for our family, but we were also sad because it meant someone lost their life," Donna Jewell said of the experience.
Jewell's kidney was from a teenager in the Atlanta area who had recently died. The family decided to donate their family member's kidneys, liver and heart -- effectively touching the lives of the Jewells and two other families.
UNOS said that one single organ donor, like the teenager who donated Jewell's kidney, can save eight people through organ, eye and tissue transplants.
Donna Jewell said the experience of knowing her husband was going to get a second shot at life was joyous.
"It's hard to put into words," she said. "We would like to see it happen to more families."
After receiving the kidney transplant Tommy Jewell said he immediately felt better.
"It is a second life," the veteran said. "I had gained all that weight when I was on dialysis, and I would never have told my wife or daughter this but I was really getting down to my last days."
Donna Jewell said her husband shed 25 pounds within a couple of days of receiving the kidney.
"He is already able to walk twice a day; it's amazing," said Jewell's wife. "He used to play golf, and he is excited about taking that up again. He is totally different than what he was before."
Jewell said he was excited about driving again and took his first car ride since the surgery on Tuesday to get the couple's vehicle serviced -- a task he was happy to complete for his wife.
"I couldn't have asked for anyone better than my wife and daughter to be my caretakers," said the organ recipient. "It was hard on my wife those years; she was having to take care of a lot, and now I can do things again."
Tommy Jewell said that while he is ready for his "Honey Do" list, his wife and daughter are still cautious with him.
Jewell said he did not mind the journey to receiving his gift of life because of all the people he met. He said his many doctors, nurses, dialysis nurses and other families waiting on transplants made the journey easier because of their kind words of encouragement.
One thing Jewell said he will not miss about the experience is the dialysis equipment.
"We couldn't wait to get them out of here," laughed the veteran. "We've already got all the supplies back to the clinic."
Donna Jewell said the experience taught their family the importance of organ donation and the need for more donors to register.
Jewell said after his experience his entire family signed up to become donors, even himself.
"I signed up so that I could help someone else like I have been helped," he said.
Jewell said he would readily donate organs to someone in need -- just not his new kidney.
For more information about becoming an organ, eye and tissue donor or about organ donation, visit donatelife.net or donatelifegeorgia.org.