If you’ve been listening to WAMC for a while, you might remember Brian Flynn, who ran in a seven-person Democratic primary for Congress in New York’s 19th district back in 2018. His platform was anchored by a commitment to better, more accessible healthcare. But what Flynn has done since losing that race is extraordinary — putting him on a list with about just 50 others in the United States. Reporter Brett Barry picks up the story.
"After I lose the primary election after investing, you know, a year and a half of my life, I said, you know, I really want to do something before I turn 50," Flynn said. "And you know, I really don't think I've done enough in my life. Maybe it's like a midlife crisis."
Sports cars, exotic travel, and tattoos are a few midlife crisis coping mechanisms. But for Brian Flynn, who ran for congress in 2018, in a primary that Antonio Delgado went on to win, there was a more altruistic path to consider.
"And so I said to Amy, you know, maybe before I turn 50 and get too old, maybe I should get rid of that kidney that was such a good thing," Flynn said. "And she said, 'whatever dear.' So two days later, she was on Facebook, and she found a posting from a friend of ours whose brother whom we didn't know, needed a kidney, and she forwarded it to me and said, 'it looks like you have your chance to get rid of that kidney.' So I go and I got tested, and I was a match."
Amy Scheibe is married to Brian Flynn.
"I'd have to relate it to his experience running for congress and how frustrating politics can be; being in that world you realize just how difficult it is to do good instead of just making your own choices and pulling the ripcord," Scheibe said. "And he's a ripcord kind of guy."
"I don't know that this is a common feeling about the experience," Flynn said. "But my biggest fear was failing. And I was so anxious, not about the surgery, I was anxious about failing and not being able to do something important and to help out Greg.
Brian's surgery was a success. And Greg, the brother of the Facebook friend who’d desperately needed a match, is now in possession of Brian's healthy kidney.
And for Gregory Dentice, that beautiful kidney came just in time.
"My surgeon, when I spoke to him after, like, post-op, said, ‘you know, when we took this out, and we were about to put it in you, I said, wow, this is a beautiful kidney!” Dentice said. "Literally his words, directly out of the surgeon’s mouth. ‘Beautiful kidney.’"
A childhood infection that lingered in Dentice’s body led to kidney disease that became quite serious in his 20s. By the time of his surgery, they’d reached the point of failure.
"The day of the surgery they took my blood, and my kidney function was at 10%, which, they suggest dialysis at 15%," Dentice said.
And while donors and recipients don't always meet after an experience like this, Brian and Greg have become close friends.
"The fact that he’s just such a great guy, you know, it was easy to kind of start connecting with him," Dentice said. "Yeah, I mean, it’s kind of like an older brother, older cousin kind of feel at this point."
"And, you know, you get a little bit, you know, sentimental and gushy about these things," Flynn recalled. "And I was thanking him again for the honor to be able to help him because it's meant so much to me in my life. And he said, well, if it really you know, was such a great experience for you, I hear you can give away your liver. Haha."
"He blames me for this, but you know, he made the decision, so … who’s to blame?" Dentice said. "I think he just tells his wife that just so he doesn’t get mad at him."
So then, of course, I looked it up, and I found out you can!" Flynn said. "Living liver donations is a thing. And then I did the research, it's, you know, four or five times more dangerous, and it's not as common and it's a more serious process. So then I brought it up with Amy and she, her first reaction was ... Why? Why would you want to? I said, Well, because, you know, I think doing the kidney was great. and a really good experience, and doing the liver and the kidney would be, would be extraordinary, and how often in life do you get to do something extraordinary."
What Flynn was considering, a dual living organ donation, would be extraordinary indeed.
"So it's pretty unusual," said Dr. Ben Samstein, Chief of Liver Transplantation and Hepatobiliary Surgery at New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medicine. "There are reports that the number is around 50 people in the United States have been dual organ live donors. And that's the entire United States.
Not to mention, Brian was considering this during a pandemic.
"It was a very difficult time at work last year, because of the pandemic. A lot of companies were struggling because you had trouble getting people to come to work," Flynn said. "And we were making COVID test kits. So we had to produce them."
Yes. COVID test kits. Brian Flynn runs a medical device company with factories nationwide. He was visiting one of those factories in the Midwest, when he got a call.
"I got a phone call that I didn't recognize," Flynn recalled. "This is Dr. Samstein. We have a match for you who needs your liver. It's a four year old boy. I said, Okay. Yeah, I'm in. I'm in, I'm in. This is what I said I wanted to do, this is fine. Things are really busy at work. And this is late October. So you want to do like, you know, December, I'll get my affairs in order, as they say. And he said, No, we don't have time. 10 days, we're doing it November 3. Election Day? And he said, yes. So vote early. And we'll see you on November 3."
And so in the midst of a pandemic and directing the manufacturing of COVID test kits for the pandemic, Brian squeezed in some last minute flights for the business, then arrived at New York Presbyterian in a panic.
"Like. what am I doing?" Flynn said. "Like, who does this? What do you, what, and it was it was just a moment of, this is the stupidest thing that you're choosing. To you have them cut you open, do like all these incisions, and you didn't have to do this. And what it said to me is that you know, courage is not the absence of fear. It's just moving ahead even when there is fear. And it proves that I'm not delusional and I'm not crazy, because I realized the risk and I realized what I was doing and I realized that it was worth it."
"It was easy working with Brian because he knew what donating an organ was like," Dr. Samstein said. "So when we would describe what the hospitalization course or the pain would be like, he said, I'm very familiar with that. And we talked a little bit about the separation between the recipient and the donor. Even though it's a tremendous gift, they have the right not to meet the donor. And so we talked to Brian and he was very understanding, I think, in part because of his experience as a kidney donor, about that process as well, and being respectful of their going through their own process."
And after another successful surgery, transplantation and recovery, the recipient family arranged to meet their donor.
"This incredible family, and the sweetest little boy who had a very rare liver disease that was fatal if they hadn't done it," Flynn said. "And they told me the story afterwards that all of a sudden they came to them and said, Okay, so there's this 51 year old man who wants to anonymously donate. And they're like, What? A 51 year old? Like, does it still work? Do livers work on people that old? I was like, I'm not that ... I mean, really?
"My first reaction, I was like, at first I’m thinking it’s someone that’s crazy, how do I know this person’s not crazy, because I just didn’t even realize people did that, that that was even like, an option," said Melissa Ramirez, 4 year-old Ritchie's mom. They live in Brooklyn, New York. "I didn’t know anything about it."
"He was diagnosed at two years old with Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency," Ramirez said. "So it’s a genetic condition that we knew nothing about. My sister, she was getting tested to be his donor, because she was like the same blood type and everything, but she’s also a carrier of the gene. So they couldn’t jeopardize her if she had any health issues in the future. We thought that this was going to be something that, you know, that we were going to look at when he was a teenager, and then his routine bloodwork just took a change in the summer, and the whole liver team decided it was the right time to get him on the list. I just didn’t think we were going to get a call that quick."
RICHIE RAMIREZ: You know it’s my girlfriend? MOM: He’s not asking about your girlfriend. RICHIE: My girlfriend is … [trails off]
Yes, he’s got an adult liver and he’s already chasing girls twice his age. Don’t worry Brian, he loves you too.
"I love him and … he gave me a new liver," said Richie.
Considering this positive track record, I asked Brian, if he was considering a third organ.
"You can donate a lobe of your lung. I have no support from family members to do the lung donation," Flynn said. "So I don't think that's going to happen. But I have looked into it."
"I drew the line," Scheibe said. "I said, you know, if your biggest fear is me leaving you over something, this is it. You can give bone marrow, you can give plasma, but no more surgeries.
And as for Brian's thoughts on the 19th congressional district, and being a constituent of Antonio Delgado.
"Someone said to me, would you run for office again?" Flynn said. "I said no, I said, I scratched that itch. Someone like Antonio is a better candidate and is a better congressman than I would have been, and a great person. You know, when the universe gives you signals like that, you have to read them and I've got other ways that I can make a difference and be involved. So the organ donations, so I’ve done that, and now I'm just looking for the next itch to scratch and what I can do to make a difference and I haven't found it yet."