GOSHEN COUNTY – It was in 2009 when James Harris first noticed something wrong with his health.
“I worked at night and I just, I wasn’t feeling good. So, I just came home and went to bed. Then, I told one of the kids to go get their mom because I thought I was dying,” James said.
That night, they went to the emergency room. James said after several tests, the doctors could not figure out what was wrong. They eventually performed a CT scan.
“They told me that I had one kidney and the kidney I had had a huge mass on it, and it looked like it was going to burst,” James said.
An ambulance took James to Denver, where half his kidney needed to be removed in order to take out the tumor.
That night was the beginning of James’ journey to get a kidney transplant. Back then, the cancer meant a kidney transplant was not an option. Now, James’ wife, Tara, is hoping to be a match as his kidney donor.
James and Tara grew up in Gordon, Nebraska. James said the two started dating in high school.
Tara said, “he went off to college in Milford, Nebraska and then I joined him down there later.”
The two eventually moved back west, to be closer to their family.
After living in western Nebraska for a while, Tara said someone suggested a property for sale.
“Somebody said, ‘well, there’s a great little house out in the country by Huntley,’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know where that is,’” Tara said. Despite previously knowing about the area, the Harris family settled there.
James and Tara have four kids. Logan plays football in Laramie at the University of Wyoming.
“This will be his last year coming up here, and he started when he was a freshman. He’s had a good career over there,” said James.
Corbin attends Minot State University in North Dakota. “He’s there on a scholarship for track.”
Gabbi recently finished her freshman year at Torrington High School. Tara said Gabbi loves to swim and competes in the summer and plays volleyball.
The youngest, Xander, finished seventh at Torrington Middle School. Tara said the very first place Xander visited after being born was a football game Logan was playing in and James was coaching.
“From the get-go, he was like, ‘nope, not doing sports,’” Tara laughed. She said Xander has a great sense of humor and is into science, music and video games.
Tara said when Xander was about 17 months old, she felt the urge to go back to school to study nursing.
“I started doing my prerequisites for nursing at EWC. And then within that first semester of doing that, I don’t even know if I got through my first semester when James was diagnosed with cancer the first time,” Tara said.
Tara said the next semester she cut back on classes, driving to Denver every other day while James was on dialysis. After getting through her prerequisites at Eastern Wyoming College, she earned an associate’s nursing degree from Western Nebraska Community College.
“I just kept thinking the whole time, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen. I need to get a job that’s going to be able to support all of us. He may not make it or not be able to work, so I’ve got to just keep pushing on,’” Tara said. “It was just something I had to do.”
Exactly a year after the first surgery, “when I was back for scans, they found another cancerous tumor on the same kidney,” James said. “So, they went in and took half of that.” James was left with one quarter of a kidney.
After both surgeries, James said he had been on dialysis.
“After the second surgery on it, they pretty much were getting me ready to do dialysis for life,” he said. “And then it started working. So, since 2010 I’ve been living with a quarter of a kidney.”
Another year later, doctors found the cancer had spread to his right lung, so part of his lung needed to be removed.
Once renal cell carcinoma spreads to other organs, the five-year survival rate is low. James said at the time his cancer spread, there was a ten percent chance of him being alive in five years.
Since then, “the cancer pretty much stayed in remission,” James said.
He said he continues to be thankful to be alive. “I’ve met a lot of people along the way with the same diagnosis that I’ve had and they’re not here anymore.”
James said his faith is what has gotten him through his health battles.
“Faith is pretty much number one. You don’t have that, it’s pretty tough going,” he said.
He said his situation has given him a new perspective on life – not taking anything for granted.
“It’s changed my way of thinking, of looking at things, that’s for sure. Before, you think you’re invincible. It makes you see what’s important in life,” he said.
James explained how his kidney function is declining.
“Finally, it’s done. It’s fading pretty fast now,” he said.
After living with one quarter of a kidney for about 11 years, James is hoping for a transplant soon.
He had not been considered for a transplant before because of the cancer. James said there was a high risk that the immunosuppressant drugs used for kidney transplants would cause his cancer to worsen.
James said medicine has advanced enough in the past decade that a transplant is now a possibility for him. His nephrologist started looking into the option again in December.
“We went through all the tests, and they put me on the list,” he said.
With a live donor, James said the process would take around two to three months. Without one, it could take three to seven years.
Tara is currently testing to see if one of her kidneys could be a match. The first major requirement is that their blood types are the same – which they are. Next, Tara’s and James’ blood will be put together to see how they react to each other.
“We kind of make a joke about it – we’re going to see if they’re going to be friends and get along with each other,” Tara said.
The process of becoming a living organ donor is extensive. Tara said she began with screenings to determine if she was healthy enough to live with one kidney. Tara said she lost 22 pounds to get through the preliminary screening. It was recommended she lose another ten before the donation.
On June 1, Tara will spend a day in Denver with several professionals doing tests.
James said if Tara is not a match, they can search for other pairs who did not match.
“If somebody else is a match, she can give them her kidney and if they have a donor that’s a match with me, I’ll take their kidney,” James explained.
Life right now looks relatively normal, according to Tara and James. They travel to their kids’ sporting events and other school functions and love to garden and be outside, according to Tara.
Tara works on the med surg floor as a registered nurse. Tara said she is currently scheduled for three twelve-hour shifts a week and has been picking up shifts as the hospital is busy right now.
James said, “I just pretty much try to keep things normal, as a much as I can.” He works 12 hours a day as a mechanic in charge (MIC) at Union Pacific (where he has worked for about 22 years) and keeps up with his kids.
James said the biggest challenges have been not feeling normal and finding ways to keep a sense of normalcy for his kids. James said he did not want his kids’ lives to be centered around doctor visits.
From the beginning, Tara said the couple never kept anything from their children. It was important for them to know what was going on.
“The oncologist and all the nurses at the oncology office in Denver, they got to know my kids really well,” she said.
James said, “I’m thankful for my wife. There’s not a lot of people that would be willing to go through all what she’s having to. She’s having to do a lot, on top of working 12-hour days at the hospital just to be able to do this for me.”
“She went through nursing school with me being sick and four kids,” James said.
Tara said her challenge has been the lack of time to take care of herself.
“I don’t mean this in a selfish way, but I have talked to so many other caregivers as a nurse, and it just wears you down,” she explained. “Thank goodness I have a strong, strong faith and that has gotten me through all of it.”
Tara said, “James can also testify that our faith in God is definitely bigger now than it ever was before. Unfortunately, sometimes people have to go through something like this to really give everything to God.” Tara said she remembers exactly when she gave up trying to control the situation.
“We were coming home from Denver for one of his dialysis treatments and he got really sick on the interstate. Really sick, like confusion – he couldn’t even tell me what day it was or what his name was,” she said.
They stopped at the hospital in Cheyenne, and James was sent back to Denver. By that time, it was 2 a.m. and Tara was trying to get back to the kids, who were staying with a friend.
“I was so exhausted, and I said, ‘okay, I give up. It’s all in your hands now because I cannot fight anymore,’” she explained. Tara said she keeps this moment in the back of her mind remembering giving the situation to God and having the situation turn out okay.
“He took care of us. He got me home safely. He got him safely to Denver. And here we are ten years later,” she said.
Both Tara and James said their experience has caused a major shift in their mindsets.
“All those little things you’re worried about – those go out the window,” Tara said. “All you do is count the blessings every day you have another day with your husband and my husband has another day raising his children. By the way, he’s the best dad ever.”
James added that he has learned to be thankful for what’s in front of him. “Material things don’t mean as much.”
After hearing the stories of several others hoping for transplants, Tara said she encourages people to look into organ donation.
Their lives are waiting for someone to make a decision to become a living donor or waiting for someone to pass away who had indicated they wanted to be a donor.
“There’s nothing you can give more to a person than life,” she said. “I’m so excited to see what my husband’s going to be like after he gets a real functioning kidney.”