It all started with a routine physical. That turned into a two-week hospital stay. Then dialysis. Then a kidney transplant. And another. And another … and another.
Jeff Cox has taken on life’s most challenging obstacles head on. At 51, Jeff has undergone about a decade worth of taxing kidney dialysis and four kidney transplants. But if you happen to cross his path at Gateway Tire and Service Center in Manchester, where he has served as store manager for the past six years, you would never know his story by his demeanor.
“I was diagnosed [with Berger’s disease, a form of IgA Nephropathy] at age 16,” explained Jeff, who inherited the disease genetically. Three of his cousins also have the disease, which eats cells of the kidney from the inside out.
How his disease, which Jeff likened to a “death sentence” when he received the news, was discovered was nothing short of a fluke.
“It was one of those things where I didn’t want to practice [football]. So, I faked passing out and the coach said that he needed a complete physical before I could come back. That physical turned into a two week stay in the hospital where they found the disease. I graduated in May of 1981 and was in dialysis on June 8.”
From that point on Jeff’s life has depended almost exclusively on organ donors. He knows that without them, he wouldn’t be alive today.
“I would not be sitting here today if it were not for them,” he said. “At the same time, during that time [I have received a kidney] I pray for the family who has lost a loved one. I remember life … and they remember death.”
April is National Donate Life Month, a cause that obviously hits close to home for Jeff Cox.
“I try my best to make people aware about organ donation,” Jeff said. He emphasized the fact that only 35 percent of those eligible in Coffee County have registered to be a donor. “I recently spoke to the Rotary Club about it. Coffee County has one of the lowest rates of organ donor signees than anyone around.”
Jeff’s first kidney transplant came from his mother late in 1981. But he was only able to keep it for six months.
“I had my first transplant in November of 1981 and I got it from my mother,” Jeff said, his recollection of dates memorized without flaw. “It never really worked. I was in the hospital from October 31 through January 28 of 1982. Come to find out my mother was a carrier [of the disease] so that’s why it didn’t work.”
Jeff was back on dialysis within months, spending four hours three times a week having his blood artificially cleaned to supplement his failing kidney. In August of 1982, he received another transplant.
“The second one was from my brother,” he said. “That one lasted four years … but I started going into chronic rejection after two years.”
Jeff returned to dialysis for three years when that kidney began to fail. That, he says, is when his health began to deteriorate drastically.
“I was down to 129 pounds,” he explained. “I couldn’t really walk. Any long distances and I had to be in a wheel chair.”
It was his faith in God and his deepening confidence in religion that kept Jeff from throwing in the towel on life.
“Before I grew in my faith, when I was younger, yeah I wanted to give up,” he admitted. “When I was first told at 16 sitting at UAB with my mom, dad and brother in a room, it was a death sentence. I cried for days. But once I saw how healthy one transplant made me … I never gave up from that point on.
“One thing my faith in God has taught me is to never give up and I try to pass that on to other people.”
On Thanksgiving Day in 1989, Jeff got a phone call that he could forever be thankful for.
“The Lord blessed me on that day.”
The call was for another kidney that was available to him. Jeff received the transplant and experienced more success than his previous two transplants. This kidney was good, but eight years later he was back on dialysis – this time for seven grueling years.
“I best describe [dialysis] as taking a backpack full of boulders and walking uphill for a mile.”
During his time on dialysis Jeff was unable to work, which was difficult for him.
“I was not able to work. The physical toll and the mental toll dialysis takes is rough,” he said. “During that time I was a youth pastor at a couple of different churches and that kept me busy and motivated both.
“I was on disability. And I thanked God for the money … but I really wanted to work.”
On September 13, 2004, Jeff received his fourth kidney despite doctors advising him that he likely wouldn’t receive another one. This time it was a perfect match.
“They said it was as if this was my identical twin,” he said. “This September will be 10 years on my fourth transplant.”
Jeff said he has elected to not reach out to the families of those whose organs have kept him alive to see age 51. But he said that could change.
“I’ve chosen not to get in contact, but that certainly doesn’t mean that I don’t care,” Jeff explained. “I would like to know. Then it is up to the family members if they want to know [me]. I think I will know when I’m supposed to. I’ll just know when it is right.”
The road Jeff Cox’s life has taken has featured more than its fair share of bumps along the way. Through his journey he has withstood the mental and physical rigors of dialysis and the unthinkable challenge of having four kidney transplants.
Through all of that he has stood by his faith.
“Faith is number one. Faith in God and family,” he said, adding that his obstacles haven’t been easy on his wife of 30 years, Christine. “Without God, without him in my life, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you today.
“It’s that simple.”
Approximately 1,900 Tennesseans are waiting for vital organ transplants.
Register and save lives
One organ and tissue donor can save up to eight lives through donation and improve quality of life for up to 50 more people.
How to be a donor
Visit http://www.donatelifetn.org/SignUp.aspx and follow the instructions to complete the registry. The Department of Safety also provides the opportunity to sign-up when applying or renewing a driver’s license or ID.
-Information from Donate Life Tennessee