Kidney transplant surgery changes MU's leave policy for donors

A Boonville man found his kidney donor match through Facebook and reconnected with an old co-worker.

COLUMBIA - An MU employee not only changed a friend's life with an organ donation, but also changed the university's time-off policy for donors.

Ryan Fjell was drawn to a social media post for a former co-worker's daughter.

Roger Fangman has struggled with kidney disease for seven years. A couple years ago his daughter posted on Facebook, hoping to find her father's match for a kidney donor.

"Two years ago, my health had finally deteriorated far enough that they wanted to put me on the kidney donor list and told me to look for a living donor because that would be a lot healthier," Fangman said.

Fjell and Fangman used to work together at the Boonville Correctional Center.

Fjell, who now works at MU's Research Reactor, felt compelled by the post. 

"His kidney was shutting down and slowly failing, but he wasn't on dialysis yet," Fjell explained. "I was hoping to get the process done before he had to go on dialysis, which we managed to do, which was great."

The two were ready to give the surgery a go when Ryan Fjell ran into one issue.

"It's a six-week recovery for the donor when they do the kidney transplant and I got to look at what there was available for leave time," Fjell said.

Ryan Fjell needed paid time off if he were to go through with the surgery, and the University of Missouri did not offer that to employees at the time.

"I found a state law on the books that all state employees will get up to 30 working days of paid leave for living organ donation. I contacted the HR department, and they told me. Unfortunately, we did not fall under that," Fjell said.

Fjell was determined to help Fangman and contacted the University of Missouri HR department.

"I asked them if there anything we can do or if there was anyone I could talk to, and they said the University decided a long time ago that we weren't going to be under this policy," Fjell said.

"I just started making phone calls and sending emails and just working my way up the chain," he continued. "Everybody I talked to was said that sounds like a great idea, but they could not help me."

Fjell finally decided to email UM System President Mun Choi.

 "He emailed me back within a couple of hours. I was, I was actually really amazed at how fast he got back to me, and he said that it sounds like a great idea," Fjell said.

The UM Board of Curators approved the new policy in December of 2019.

Fangman and Fjell were amazed at the amount of work University Hospital put in to make the procedure happen.

A University Hospital official told KOMU 8 that a kidney transplant was the first living donor transplant that hospital leaders felt was safe and reasonable to proceed with during the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Mary Beth Stevens and Kathy Ashbaugh were the two coordinators that worked with Roger and me, and the amount of work that they have to do to organize all the doctors, all the tests, all the screens, and bring this whole thing together is unbelievable," Fjell said.

"The coordinators are truly amazing," Fangman added. "The work goes through several surgeons; then they send all the information out to third parties that are not involved with the process at all, to make sure that their doctors didn't miss anything."

Dr. Mark Wakefield performed the transplant at University Hospital.

"The decision to be a living donor has a lot of consequences," Dr. Wakefield, but added Fjell's advocacy for the policy change. "He advocated for himself, and other potential donors, and for recipients throughout the state by leading a charge to change and improve the time off."

After Roger Fangman's surgery, he has a lot of gratitude.

"The medical staff, university for my excellent care and helping me get home and get me through this," Fangman told KOMU 8. "My family because I couldn't have done it without them and my grandson can't help but feel better around him. The energy he puts out."

The surgery was successful and they both are recovering very well. The two old friends have a plan after Fangman is fully recovered. They want to attend a non-profit's fundraiser at the Lake of the Ozarks.

Every year they would participate with their co-workers from the correctional center at the annual Special Olympics Polar Plunge and shared a mutual love for helping children who have special needs.

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