Armonty Bryant was sitting in his dining room when a number he didn’t recognize popped up on his phone. The former NFL defensive end doesn’t usually answer those calls, but he was feeling good this day in late January, so he picked up.
On the other end were staffers from University of California San Diego Health, on a call he had become all too familiar with: a list of tests and labs he needed scheduled and a reminder of paperwork to fill out for his life on dialysis because of kidney disease. The call was similar to others, except for a line at the end.
“You’re getting your surgery done in February. Tentatively.”
Bryant was stunned. He told his wife, Kim. Ten minutes later, Kim called the staffers back while Armonty showered and asked what they meant about a tentative surgery date.
“Oh, you have a donor.”
After a year-plus on dialysis, Bryant learned at the end of a routine call he would be receiving a transplant three weeks later.
“My heart drops into my stomach, like everything just stops,” Bryant said. “It’s like, I can’t breathe, you know? I don’t know what to feel at the moment. I feel numb. It’s just … it’s a surreal moment.
“It’s like being a first-round draft pick, like, what? What’s going on?”
One rule of transplantation is don’t go public for at least a month after surgery. Too much can happen, from a live donor changing their mind to surgery postponement due to illness. Sometimes the recipient’s body won’t accept the new organ.
The Bryants had gotten their hopes up about receiving a live donor kidney on two occasions in 2019, only to have it fall through. So they told family and that’s pretty much it.
Two time zones away, Debra Mitchell, Bryant’s mom, ate dinner with her daughter in Lewisville, Texas. For months, she’d been shuttling between Texas, Los Angeles and San Diego to help her daughters, her mother and Armonty.
She was finishing up dinner when Kim texted. Her son was getting a kidney.
“We just made this noise at the restaurant, you know?” Mitchell said. “They are probably looking at us like, ‘What is wrong with them?’
“I’m like, ‘Is this real?'”
Soon after, Bryant called his mom to tell her the news. Mitchell asked one question: “How soon do you need me out there?” The surgery was scheduled in three weeks, on Feb. 19.
Bryant had waited for this call since he started dialysis training and broke down in tears in November 2018. Months earlier, he’d been an NFL defensive end who had signed with the Raiders. Results from his onboarding physical showed elevated potassium levels. Doctors called and told him to go to the emergency room immediately. His levels were so high they worried about a heart attack.
Soon after, Bryant met with a nephrologist, who said he’d have to retire and begin dialysis right away. Unbeknownst to Bryant, he was very sick. He was diagnosed with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (commonly known as FSGS), which led to renal failure.
The diagnosis left him without football and unable to work at the future job he’d planned — opening a children’s gym with Kim. After moving from Austin, Texas, back to San Diego last March, Bryant switched from daytime to nighttime dialysis, but the process was still arduous. Energy levels and depression levels varied.
Dialysis was a 45-minute setup including washing his hands countless times for two minutes each, hooking up cords and a cassette to tubes attached to his body and priming and warming up the machine. Bryant entered his weight and blood pressure. There were times he fell asleep waiting to start. Other nights, the machine wouldn’t work and he’d call seeking help. If he didn’t, his next day was horrible.
Bryant’s day-to-day was the constant reminder of his failing body, now down 40 pounds from his playing days, through the reality of dialysis waiting for him every night. The future? He couldn’t think past the next morning. What kept him going was simple. It was his son Auz, born in March 2019, and his laugh.
“Fix him a bottle, go grab him and hang out with him. When he wakes up in the morning, he’ll just see you, laughs, smiles, and as soon as you pick him up he hugs you,” Bryant said. “So it’s like moments like that, you don’t want to leave behind. You want to remember those as long as you can, you know?”
From the night of the phone call about the transplant to the night before surgery, Bryant counted down his days left on dialysis. Ten more days of this. Nine more days. Armonty and Kim celebrated when they placed their final dialysis equipment order.
The night before his surgery, after attending a conference with other NFL players centered on religion, Bryant beamed while setting up dialysis for the final time. Half-asleep, Kim heard him singing made-up verses about the machine that simultaneously kept him alive and had been the bane of his existence.
“Once I got done, I wanted to throw the machines and the bags and everything connected,” Bryant said. “I just wanted to throw everything out, but I couldn’t.
“But man, it was a relief. Like, I was so excited. Turned away and never look back.”
He still had to undergo surgery. The kidney still had to take. Even though he would feel better, a transplant isn’t a cure but rather a more successful, longer-lasting treatment for a disease he’ll continue to have. More than 112,000 people in the United States were waiting for an organ transplant as of March, according to the Health Resources & Services Administration, and 20 people per day die waiting for one.
An average living donor kidney lasts 15 years before another transplant is necessary. There is hope technology will increase that in the future. “We don’t have kidneys falling out of the sky,” said Dr. Kristin Mekeel, Bryant’s transplant surgeon at UC San Diego Health. “It is a resource that we have to protect and make sure people are going to take care of it after a transplant because it is a limited resource.”
Bryant had surgeries before. Those were football-related injuries. This would save his life.
He woke up on Feb. 19, showered, got dressed and went straight to the Center for Transplantation at UC San Diego Health at 6 a.m. As they put him under, Bryant had a big smile on his face. Kim and Debra, sitting together in the waiting room, were anxious.
“This seemed a lot, lot scarier because they are disconnecting organs and stuff,” Kim said. “We didn’t know much about it. It was horrifying. I remember his mom and I just waiting, staring into space, waiting for the phone calls from the doctors constantly to see what happened.
“Every time they’d call we’d jump up.”
To pass the time during the three-hour surgery and Bryant’s recovery time, they went to the cafeteria twice — eating eggs in the morning and pizza in the afternoon. Debra played casino games on her phone to distract her. Kim looked around, trying to figure out who the anonymous living donor might be.
Inside, Mekeel began a process she’d done at least 800 times. For the donor, it is a small incision operation where the kidney is removed, put on ice and cleaned up to remove any excess tissue.
Then an incision was made in the lower part of Bryant’s abdomen. Instead of removing old kidneys, because they won’t cause any harm, the new kidney is placed in the lower abdomen to make it easier to connect the kidney to the bladder. The blood vessels in the new kidney were then attached to Bryant’s blood vessels and then his bladder so he can urinate as he did before the transplant.
They sewed the kidney’s blood vessels to those in Bryant’s body. When that is completed, Mekeel released clamps and blood flowed almost immediately through the new kidney. Sometimes, the transplant recipient will urinate before the operation is complete.
“It’s actually kind of amazing,” Mekeel said. “How they pick right back up and start working even though they are in a different body.”
Bryant made it through. When Kim and Debra found out, they cried. But even with the transplant, his recovery was just starting — and about to become much more challenging.
The pain, the worst he said he has ever experienced, is the first thing Bryant remembers. He felt like he’d been stabbed. Bryant found the button controlling his morphine, hit it a few times and then passed out again.
Bryant felt better through the pain. Even though he needed a bed extension to fit his 6-foot-4 frame, he had his new kidney. Then he started to pee. Urination was typical, but not like this — 15 liters in the first 48 hours following the surgery.
“I’ve been a transplant surgeon for 15, 16 years,” Mekeel said. “He did set a record for me. And I’ve done a lot of kidney transplants. It’s basically what I do.”
Armonty Bryant and his wife Kim reflect on their reactions when they got a date for Armonty’s surgery, as well as Armonty’s happiness that he wouldn’t have to have dialysis anymore.
It meant the kidney worked, but Bryant started cramping, worse than he ever had in football. He asked Kim to bring pickle juice to the hospital to help it subside. A day later he walked. The day after that, they took the catheter out. He was able to walk and do normal activities, so he was able to go home.
There were other issues. The cocktail of antirejection medications — prednisone, prograf and cellcept — made him angry and irritable, which is normal. Kim reminded herself it was the drugs, not her husband. When they arrived home the Saturday following surgery, Debra helped cook meals and babysat Auz while Kim tended to Armonty.
The anger subsided. There were other side effects, including an issue with a stent in his urethra which required a small, but painful, procedure for removal. Bryant wore diapers for the first month and suffered from urinary tract infections. Then, COVID-19 struck the United States. By nature of the transplant and his disease, Bryant was considered high-risk and immunocompromised. Aside from three to four doctor appointments per week, he had to stay inside. Just when he felt he gained freedom, the coronavirus kept him inside.
COVID-19 made everything more tense. Bryant couldn’t have visitors. On rare occasions when Kim’s nephews came, he retreated to a back room. Whenever Kim or Debra entered the house or a car, Armonty sprayed them with a Lysol disinfectant can.
“I was like, ‘Can you warn me before you do that?'” Debra said. “As soon as I got back in the car, he was spraying me.”
Bryant laughs about it now, but at the time they had a fear of everything. He lost his career and livelihood, went through a year of dialysis and received a kidney only to end up in a global pandemic he had no control over.
He wanted to see everyone, but couldn’t see anyone. He wanted to tell the world about his kidney, but had to hold back.
“They saved me, you know. Who knows how long I was going to be able to last. How long I was going to mentally be able to do it.”
Ex-NFL lineman Armonty Bryant on the anonymous kidney donor
“It almost made me go back into how it used to be, back to being in my corner depressed,” Bryant said. “Like I still can’t do anything, can’t go outside. Can’t go to the beach. Can’t go work out. Can’t do anything. Still got to stay positive, even though we’re stuck in the house, stuck in my little room and everything.”
The reminders of his past remained. The tube Bryant had in his body for dialysis should have been taken out six weeks post-surgery. Because it would be a procedure that would put him in the hospital and under anesthesia, he waited until April 22.
Eventually they gave Bryant a sign he could potentially start doing activities he’d longed to do.
Bryant turned 30 on May 20. Friends flew in. California’s coronavirus restrictions had opened up slightly and Armonty had the surgery to remove the dialysis tubes, so he felt a little better about going out into the world.
He did so with a different appreciation for his wife, for his family, for his life. He has never been one to share his emotions, but he told his mom — who had stayed with the Bryants from days prior to the surgery until July 7 — for the first time how much he appreciated her.
Kim arranged everything — just like she handled every aspect of their lives while he was sick, even when she was eight months pregnant with their son. She called doctors to check on tests and appointments. She was the one in constant contact with Diane Brockington, from the John Brockington Foundation, which assists kidney transplant patients. Brockington walked her through the entire process and answered every question she had.
Kim ran their fledgling business and dealt with her sick husband’s struggles. Even now, she reminds him — in case his phone doesn’t go off — of the four times a day he has to take medication, a total of eight pills. For now, that’s down from the 13 he was taking because of a recent hospitalization in July due to a parasite. It will be this way for the rest of his life.
“Her determination, if there was something she didn’t understand, she would go find it out. She would pull it up, whatever she needed to do, whoever she needed to get in touch with,” Debra said. “Just, she’s amazing to me.”
Bryant’s support system helped him rediscover his own way. There will always be the possibility of a health complication, but he’s able to think beyond day-to-day again. He and Kim opened that new gym for children in San Diego, KidWonder. He found a love for music, in-studio rapping with former Kansas City Chiefs receiver Dwayne Bowe and others.
He started to think about his future, one he has because of an anonymous donor. The only way Armonty and Kim will ever find out who gave him that kidney will be if both the recipient and donor agree to exchange information. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes it doesn’t.
But Bryant knows one thing: He’s grateful for that person. They gave him part of his life back.
“They saved me, you know? Who knows how long I was going to be able to last?” he said. “How long I was going to mentally be able to do it.”