Doug Kaufman and Jim McGee hadn’t met since serving alongside each other in the Vietnam War, but a funeral brought them back together in the summer of 2018. And it was at this reunion that Kaufman was inspired to give McGee an incredible gift that would link the pair for a lifetime.
McGee and Kaufman were just two of the many young Americans to serve in Vietnam. But even though the conflict in which the pair took part remains widely known as the Vietnam War, that is something of a misnomer, as fighting also took place in Cambodia and Laos.
Meanwhile, although Kaufman and McGee had also been in the same Air Force training class, their lives took them in different directions after the war had ended. McGee, on the one hand, became a foreign service officer helping to develop American foreign policy. He also went on to serve as the U.S. ambassador to both Madagascar and Zimbabwe during separate periods.
McGee’s fellow airman, on the other hand, ended up in Eugene, Oregon. Following his own time in the Air Force, Kaufman became a natural history researcher. He is also notable for being a published author.
And, in fact, McGee and Kaufman’s paths wouldn’t cross again for nearly 50 years after their service in Vietnam. The last time they had encountered each other had been in 1971 – that is, until one of their fellow veterans passed away in the summer of 2018.
Then, at the airman’s funeral, McGee and Kaufman spent some time reconnecting with each other. And it was during this occasion that McGee mentioned that he was in the midst of a personal health crisis. In particular, he needed an organ transplant.
During that period, McGee was on a waiting list to receive a new kidney. In the meantime, though, the former U.S. ambassador was undergoing thrice-weekly dialysis, a procedure that cleans a patient’s blood – a job normally done by the kidneys when they’re healthy.
Realistically, McGee may have had to wait for a new kidney for up to five years, as he himself claimed to Fox 5 DC in September 2018. Moreover, the time he spent undergoing his treatment was taking away from the life he wanted to lead, keeping him fixed to one spot.
“One thing about dialysis,” the 69-year-old told the station, “[is that] it pretty much locks you into your home base.” Yet now, in telling his story to Kaufman, McGee received an unexpected response to his healthcare needs.
“Doug… volunteered a kidney, and, to me, it’s the gift of life,” McGee told Fox 5 DC. And the gift was an even more incredible one considering that he and Kaufman hadn’t seen each other in nearly half a century before they had both attended the funeral.
However, Kaufman had never previously planned on taking such a measure. “I never visualized myself in this position,” he said to Fox 5 DC. “It never would have occurred to me to be a kidney donor. It was just being in the right place at the right time.”
But, of course, the process itself would not be easy, since a successful transplant requires more than a willing donor. Firstly, doctors must perform a series of tests on the candidate for donation to make sure that they’re physically and mentally healthy enough to withstand what will come next.
Then, if these opening hurdles are overcome, medical professionals will examine both the patient and the donor to ensure that they’re a good match for transplantation. These checks are to confirm that the respective blood and tissue types of the potential donor and the patient are compatible – otherwise, the recipient’s body might reject the new organ, thus rendering the procedure unsuccessful.
However, these and other tests came back with good results for the veterans. Kaufman remembered to Fox 5 DC, “Our blood and tissue type match is good… The chances of our match – I don’t know what the odds were, but we beat them.”
And so, three months after the day they reunited at their comrade’s funeral, McGee and Kaufman met up once again – this time for a major operation. During a kidney transplant, instruments are passed through tiny cuts in the donor in an effort to remove the organ. The healthy kidney is then transported to the recipient, who undergoes their own operation to have the body part implanted.
In the case of the soldiers, the surgery, which took place at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, proceeded as hoped. Kaufman’s health may have been a large factor in that success, as the men’s surgeon would reveal that the donor had kidneys like those of an individual half his age.
And the whole experience only fueled McGee’s newfound passion – raising awareness for what he described to Fox 5 DC as a “national crisis.” Illustrating the scale of the problem, McGee added, “100,000 people are waiting for kidney transplants, [while] another 15,000 are waiting for liver transplants.”
However, the erstwhile ambassador believes that people may be willing to make sacrifices to help alleviate the situation – just like his fellow serviceman did for him. “It’s people like Doug who step forward and make the difference,” McGee told Fox 5 DC.
And McGee had managed to receive his kidney despite there only being a slim likelihood of him and Kaufman being a match for donation. This, Kaufman has said, suggests that there is an inherent connection between people. “It just is living proof that we’re all part of one human family,” he explained.
Still, the two men are aware that things may not have fallen into place. “When I think of all the ways it might not have worked out…” Kaufman said during the Fox 5 DC news report, before trailing off. But McGee had an answer to his old friend, finishing, “It was meant to be.”