Norfolk State alum gives former roommate part of his kidney

"I believe it's the right thing to do," organ donor Steven Robinson said

A chance encounter between a pair of former HBCU college roommates last summer has set the stage this Valentine’s Day for a scheduled organ transplant that could save one of their lives.

Richard Koonce, 62, is the college prep director and head girls’ basketball coach at Sandusky Public Schools in Sandusky, Ohio who is scheduled to receive a partial liver transplant from his old friend, Steven Robinson, 57, at a hospital in Cleveland on Monday, according to NBC News.

(L to R) Richard Koonce, 62, is pictured with his former college roommate Steven Robinson, 57, of Sandusky, Ohio, who is scheduled to receive a partial liver transplant from Koonce on Feb. 14, 2022 in Cleveland. (Credit: Richard Koonce on Facebook, used with permission)

“I think it was a spiritual thing,” Robinson told NBC News. “I always had love for the brother. And I could see something was wrong. I could see it in his eyes. And he didn’t have the weight. So, it was a culmination of things. I had rejoined the church two years before the pandemic and found God, who led me through my spiritual battle.”

The duo’s unlikely story highlights the dire need for more Black organ donors in the United States, where Black people make up the largest share of minorities in need of organ transplants, according to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health report.

Nearly 84% of organs received from Black people in 2020 were from donors who had died, according to study, but only about 16% of Black organ donations that year came from living donors.

That’s less than half the roughly 33% of white living donors who donated organs in 2020. 

“Living donors are very, very important,” Dr. Velma Scantlebury told NBC News. “When you have someone who can donate to you, you’re not competing with the hundreds or thousands in your region also waiting for a deceased organ, which can take as long as five or seven years. You eliminate the risk of dying from an illness related to your liver while waiting on the list.”

The campus of Norfolk State University, an HBCU located in Norfolk, Virginia, is pictured in this undated photo. (Credit: Norfolk State University on Facebook)

Koonce and Robinson were once roommates at Norfolk State University, an HBCU in Virginia. They hadn’t seen each other for 21 years prior to June of 2021, when Robinson, his wife, and their three children were driving through Ohio on their way to visit family in Detroit, per NBC News.

During the road trip, Robinson realized Koonce lived nearby and decided to call his old friend to make an unplanned visit.

“Felt great to see him after so long,” Robinson told NBC News.

When Robinson and his family arrived at Koonce’s Sandusky home, he was shocked to see how much weight he had lost.

“Hey, man. What’s going on? You OK?” Robinson asked. That’s when Koonce told his old roommate that he had been battling primary sclerosing cholangitis, or PSC, since 2019.

PSC is a potentially life-threatening, incurable, and rare, yet chronic liver disease that the American Liver Foundation says causes scarring in a person’s bile ducts, leading to infections, tumors, and severe liver failure.

Robinson told Koonce he had tried several unsuccessful treatments for PSC and was now holding out hope for a transplant from a living donor.

(From l to r) Steven and Natalie Robinson pose for a picture with Richard and Marion Koonce in 2021. (Credit: Richard Koonce on Facebook, used with permission)

Since the liver is the only organ in the human body that can grow cells and regenerate itself, donors can give part of their liver to people who need them and regrow their own, according to NBC News.

Robinson decided to volunteer to donate a piece of his liver to Koonce to extend or even save his friend’s life.

Robinson’s wife, Natalie Robinson, and their three children gave the uncommonly kind gesture their blessing during the family’s ride home to Teaneck, New Jersey. It was Koonce, after all, who introduced Natalie to her husband during their college years.

Prior to his college roommate’s decision, Koonce had only shared news of his condition with a small group of friends.

“I couldn’t ask any of them to do this,” he said. “But if it’s something you want to do, I can give you the information. That was my position.”

It turned out Robinson and Koonce had the same O+ blood type and were a better physical match than Koonce’s wife, Marion Koonce, and their daughter, who also volunteered to donate, according to NBC News.

“It’s a special man who would volunteer to do something like this,” Koonce said. “Steve is special.”

Koonce’s wife, Marion, told theGrio early Monday afternoon that he is in surgery with about six more hours to go. After that, she expects he’ll remain in ICU for at least two days and will stay in the hospital for up to three weeks. Marion also said she hopes her family’s story will motivate more people to “step up” and become organ donors.

“It’s amazing how God’s plan unfolds and it so obvious that he’s in control,” she told theGrio.

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