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The ultimate alumni donor

  Blake Rasmussen  

Ryan Justis ’99 (right) donated a kidney to Jim Steinberg ’99.

Ryan Justis ’99 and Jim Steinberg ’99 were roommates and teammates at Cornell. They remained close friends after graduation when Justis returned to Colorado and Steinberg moved to Des Moines. Steinberg was in Justis’ wedding.

Justis was getting a great start on life with a new wife and a job he loved.

Meanwhile, Steinberg was watching his life fade away. Just graduated from Drake University and beginning his career in law, his health deteriorated with virtually no warning. Among other symptoms, the color had left his face and he grew tired more easily. Doctors diagnosed him with end-stage renal disease caused by malignant hypertension. They told him he needed a transplant due to the significant damage done to his kidneys.

Test after test failed to find a match within the family and among friends. A few Cornell alumni then stepped in to be tested, Justis among them. It turned out Steinberg’s old baseball buddy was a strong match. After some deliberation, Justis and his new wife decided that he would take some time off from his job as an athletic coordinator and give his friend one of his kidneys—and a new shot at a healthy life.

The support from other Cornellians was immediate. Athletes Adam Franklin ’99 and Mitch Jensen ’99 (baseball), Dan Caropreso ’99 (football) and Kyle Hageness ’99 (basketball) came from all over the country to visit their friends and enjoy a few days of relaxation before the transplant. Former baseball coach Ray Reasland also paid them a visit.

“Words are rather insignificant,” said Justis of the support. “It was very telling that there were six guys there even though only two of us were having surgery.”

The procedure, which took place Feb. 24, went relatively well. Justis had some minor complications in the 36 hours after surgery, but Steinberg felt better almost immediately and had color in his face for the first time in ages.

Two months after the transplant, Justis had nearly recovered from the surgery.

Steinberg’s doctors continue to adjust the combination of anti-rejection medications, to enable the kidney to function even better. He can exercise and has resumed lifting weights, which he hadn’t been able to do for a year. He no longer needs to follow the strict diet for patients with kidney failure, nor spend hours on a dialysis machine. He has returned to work on a semiregular basis, and in August he’s getting married. Justis, of course, will be at the wedding, standing side by side with his friend, sharing more than just that moment.

“It’s a great story about Cornell,” said Reasland of his former recruits. “There are real ties, I’m sure, from an athletic standpoint, but from student to student as well.”

Steinberg sees it as much more than just a great story. For him, this story means his life.

“There’s really nothing I could ever do to thank him enough for what he did,” said Steinberg. “People have said to me ‘that’s some friend,’ which I tell them is a giant understatement.”

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