(Editor's note: This story was contributed to NewsChannel 9 by Mitch Talley, Whitfield County Director of Communications)
Law enforcement officers put their lives on the line every day.
No surprise, then, when Whitfield County Deputy Jeffrey Diak heard that one of his co-workers, Deputy David Headrick, needed a kidney transplant, Diak leaped at the chance to help his fellow brother in blue.
In Diak’s eyes, he’ll just returning the favor to Headrick when he donates a kidney to him later this month.
“In 2015, when David first reached out for a kidney donor, I was a rookie in the patrol division (transferring from the corrections center),” Diak says. “David would always come out and help me. I’d follow him around and learn from him, and even on his off days, sometimes he’d see me pulling in and he’d give me advice and just tell me how to better myself. I always saw that he was helping me, and so I just felt like I needed to do the same thing for him in return.”
Maybe it was Diak’s days as a Marine before transitioning over to the sheriff’s office that led him to make his decision to give one of his kidneys to Headrick. “Coming into law enforcement kinda feels the same way as the Marines,” Diak says, “and especially when I found out I was a match.”
He couldn’t, Diak says, “just sit there knowing that I could possibly make a change in his life and just not do anything about it.”
So, on Jan. 24, at Vanderbilt Transplant Center in Nashville, Tenn., Diak will gladly give up one of his kidneys so that Headrick can resume a normal life.
It’s a gift that definitely hasn’t gone unappreciated by the recipient. “I don’t know how to thank him, I really don’t, for what he’s about to do,” Headrick said, “because he has no reason to do what he’s doing other than he’s just a stand-up guy. I didn’t know him until he came to Patrol Division in 2015, so I guess we’ve both impacted each other’s lives enough that he’s willing to lay down his life for me right now. Everything I’ve ever worked for and owned or will ever own, I couldn’t give it to him and make up for what he’s doing for me – that’s how I feel.”
A long battle with kidney disease
Headrick first became aware he had kidney problems in the seventh grade when annual check-ups showed his kidney function declining each year. He’s been treated for an auto-immune disease called IgA nephropathy for about the past 10 years but says he didn’t take the diagnosis too seriously until last Valentine’s Day when his doctor told him his kidney function had finally dropped to the point where he needed dialysis to survive.
“I was on patrol that day, and I got a call from an unknown cell phone,” he remembers. “It was Joyce Miller, my doctor in Dalton, and she told me you’re fixing to die, you’re gonna die if you don’t do something, David. I heard it in her voice, and I just started crying. I knew then that it was time for me to do something.”
Doing something includes trips to US Renal just down the hill from the sheriff’s office every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for three hours of dialysis treatments.
He has a temporary port in his chest, directly to his heart, so that his blood can be pumped out into the dialysis machine, an artificial kidney if you will, where it’s cleansed and then pumped back into his body.
It’s a process that leaves him physically drained the night of the treatment but then re-energizes him the next day, only to repeat the cycle over and over again.
Still, Headrick isn’t complaining as he points to his fellow dialysis patients who aren’t as blessed as he is.
“I feel fortunate when I go down there honestly because I’m still able to work,” he says. “There’s hardly nobody down there I mean, half the people don’t even have legs, and here I am walking in in a police uniform. It took a long time – they’re used to me now – but it was all eyes on me when I walked in. Then they saw I had a bag in my hand, like I’m one of them. When they roll past me leaving now, they always want to stop and talk to me, ask me questions, how’s it going? And that made me feel pretty good. But at the same time I did feel guilty because some of these people, they’re having to jack them up with a lift and put them in their wheelchair, you know what I mean?”
While many of his fellow patients have to undergo dialysis because of the effects of diabetes or high blood pressure, Headrick says he’s there because of an auto-immune disease caused when a protein that helps his body fight infections got stuck in his kidneys and caused inflammation over a long period, eventually leading to kidney failure.
While some researchers say the disease clusters in certain families, Headrick doesn’t believe he’s a victim of genetics since none of his six brothers and sisters have been similarly diagnosed.
From one “brother” to another
While Headrick’s sister pursued giving her brother a kidney, doctors found that she had only 70 percent function of her kidneys, 10 percent below the acceptable cut-off percentage.
Fortunately for the deputy, he had another “relative” of the blue blood variety who turned out to be a perfect match for him.
After seeing Headrick’s plea for a kidney donor in a Facebook post on July 13, Diak filled out an online survey and underwent a blood test to check his compatability.
“They called me back and said that I was a match,” Diak says. “They said there are different tiers of matches that you can be, and I was a pretty good match for him. They said they’d just be waiting for him to say he was good enough to do the surgery so it got put on hold for a while. But I made up my mind that I was going to help him out, and then when David contacted me and said he was ready to go, I told him I was still going to do it.”
More in-depth testing followed for Diak. “They actually called me the week after I went up for testing in early December,” he said, “and a nurse said she had reviewed the tests and didn’t see anything medically wrong with me to be able to donate to David, but she said the final decision would be made like a week later at the board meeting where all the doctors would review my tests and make a decision. So that was like the longest week ever! I was just waiting and waiting, and then the nurse called me back and said they approved it. It was just like a relief – I just felt so happy being able to help him out.”
What are the odds?
When asked if he knew the odds of the two co-workers being a match, Headrick said he doesn’t know.
Even more, though, what if Diak had never come into Headrick’s life through his work at the sheriff’s office?
“I didn’t even know who Jeff was until he came over from the jail into our patrol division,” Headrick says, “because there’s a lot of times I don’t know the guys that are working in the jail. I mean, they see us occasionally, especially if they work in Booking, but you have to be on the same shift. I mean, we’ve got four shifts here – the way it is, we’re off a week and we work a week – so I probably don’t know anybody that works in the jail on my off week.”
Then there’s the fact that Diak hasn’t always even lived in this area. The two men might never have met since Diak was born on the south side of Buffalo, N.Y. Fortunately, Diak’s grandparents moved down here in 2000. “My grandfather was from Red Bank, Tenn., and he came back down here with my grandmother just to be around some family and to get away from the cold!”
Diak’s family followed shortly after, and he started seventh grade at North Whitfield Middle School. His mom eventually married David Heddon, who works in Whitfield County’s Buildings & Grounds department, and “he was the one who kinda pushed me into going to the sheriff’s office after I was getting out of the Marines,” Diak says. “At first, it was just for the scheduling because they do seven on and seven off,” he said. “But then when I got in here, I realized how much I enjoyed it and I just kept progressing and just trying to do everything I could here.”
Diak, 29, believes he would likely not have known about Headrick, 44, if they didn’t work together, especially since he says his use of Facebook is mainly a closed network of close family and friends. “I don’t really branch out and accept a lot of people I don’t really know,” Diak says. “Honestly, I don’t think I probably would have ever seen it on Facebook about David.”
Headrick agrees, saying “we wouldn’t have known each other except for us working here.”
Even knowing each other wasn’t enough, though. There was still the little matter of having all the stars line up physically for their kidney match.
“I don’t know what the odds are of two co-workers being a match,” Headrick says, “but I know they told me that only 30 percent of the people that pass the online test and the blood test actually get to go up there (for more intensive testing).
“It’s easy to be a blood match, but what’s hard is getting up there and him being healthy enough to go through with the surgery because the last thing they want to do is make him sick by donating to me,” Headrick says. “I’m already sick, you see, so I’ve got everything to gain. So the last thing they want to do is take an organ from him and then him be in trouble from it. So he’s really healthy to be able to donate. They’re saying he’s like super healthy to be able to do what he’s fixing to do. I guess he’s got youth on his side and good genetics.”
Getting ready for the big day
The two men had to go to Vanderbilt on Jan. 8 to undergo more testing in preparation for their surgeries, and now they’re cleared for the actual transplant to be done on Jan. 24.
“The surgery takes two or three hours,” Headrick explained. “It’s routine at Vanderbilt – I guess they’re the best in the country. They’ve got a whole wing for kidney and pancreas transplants. To them, it’s nothing.
“To me, it’s a big deal, and I know to Jeff, it’s a big deal because you’ve never even had surgery, have you?” he said, looking towards Diak.
“I’ve had my tonsils out when I was a kid, but that’s it,” he replied. “And I don’t remember that, so yeah, this’ll be pretty big for me. It’s bigger for him, but as soon as I got the phone call (confirming the match), I was so happy and I told David and then it was back to work, next day, back to my schedule. It hasn’t really unloaded on me yet, I guess.”
Diak says he’s been told he’ll probably be out of work for about four weeks and then will likely be cleared for light duty for a while.
“I just want to be make sure I do everything right,” he said, “and go by what they say because I’ve never really had a surgery before – and this is a major surgery.”
Meanwhile, Headrick should be back at work in six to eight weeks, and his friends at Westside Middle School will be glad to see him.
“I just hope the doctors know what they’re doing,” he said with a laugh, “but like I said, they do it every day. I think they said they do almost 300 transplants a year; that’s pretty amazing, and their success rate is way up in the 90s. So I know we’re in good hands. That’s one thing I do feel confident about.”
Both men praised Sheriff Scott Chitwood along with Capt. Pangle, Capt. Lynch, and Lt. Pickett at the sheriff’s office for their support during the past few months.
“I tell you the sheriff’s office has really been good to me this year as far as my scheduling and anything I needed to do,” Headrick says. “They’ve told me to do what you’ve got to do. I mean, they have treated me I couldn’t ask for anything more than what they’ve done for me.”
“Especially with us doing this together,” Diak says. “Two employees from the same building.”
“They’re going to be two men down for two months,” Headrick says.
Headrick pointed out that the surgery will be done at the same time on both men. “As soon as they get his kidney out, it’ll be going in me,” he said. “The less amount of time his kidney is out of the body, the better. I mean, that kidney starts deteriorating so the quicker they can get it in, the better. That’s why living kidney donors last longer than deceased donors because it hasn’t got time to deteriorate.”
Says Diak, “Me and him don’t know for sure how it’s gonna be up there during surgery, but we kinda picture it being right next to each other, and it’s just sort of out and in with the kidney.”
“Whether it goes boom, boom right next to each other or they bring it around the corner, I don’t know if we’re gonna be in separate rooms or the same room but we’ll be close!”
Immediate relief expected
While Headrick appreciates the fact that dialysis is keeping him alive, he points out that it’s physically demanding.
“I’m glad the sheriff let me go to the middle school as a school resource officer because I get to work there eight hours a day, five days a week,” he says. “It’d be hard if I had to leave dialysis and then go to work. Luckily, I get to go to work and then go to dialysis. There’s no way I could go do it in the morning and then come to work. It’s just too draining. I guess the best way I can describe it is when you go spend a day at the beach, you know that draining feeling at the end of the day, all you want to do is just go to sleep? That’s how I feel each day after dialysis. I just want to go home and go to bed, and I usually have a low-grade headache.”
Fortunately, the transplant will change that immediately. “They said I should feel better before I even wake up,” Headrick says. “That’s how quick his kidney, they expect it to work in me. They said that the toxins in my body will start eliminating immediately, as soon as they hook him up to me.
“That’s the amazing part because they said that you don’t know what feel-good feels like anymore. The doctor says every year you’re getting worse and worse so you’ve forgot where David feels good, you know. They said, once you get that kidney, you’ll be sore for a few days, but your levels are immediately gonna go up to the good, where that kidney’s getting the bad stuff out of you that you’re used to just living with.”
The doctors compare it to a fish swimming around in a dirty fish bowl. “Once that filter starts cleaning the water, that fish is gonna be happier and feel better,” Headrick says. “That’s how they’ve explained it to me down at the clinic. That’s what’s dialysis does – it cleans the mud out of the water, so to speak. It keeps the water clear enough just so you can swim. But there’s nothing like an actual kidney, you know?”
Another word of thanks
As the two men headed outside to take the photos accompanying this story, Headrick made sure to emphasize how much he wanted Diak’s generosity to be highlighted “because I definitely wouldn’t be here without him.”
“I don’t know when I would have got a transplant,” Headrick says. “I feel confident I would have got the transplant eventually, but I don’t know how long it would be – probably a long time. (National statistics show that it can take three to 10 years to get a donor kidney, especially if you are on the deceased donor list.) Fortunately, he was the second person that went up there and got tested. They first checked my sister, and then Jeff went in with flying colors. When he went up there, I felt good about it – I did. My wife’s like, ‘I think Diak’s gonna be the one.” Turned out, sure enough.”
Headrick says the most special thing “about all this is the gesture that he’s doing.”
“That’s the amazing thing to me,” he says, “because just sit and think about that, who would you give your kidney to? You know what I mean? That’s a hard decision. I’m just amazed by it, I really am.”
Diak says he’s tried to explain the surgery to his 7-year-old daughter, telling her you’re born with two kidneys but you only need one to survive. “She walked up to me and pointed at one of the veins in her arm, and she’s like, is that it?” he says. “My son Easton is not even 2 years old yet, so he doesn’t understand.”
Some people have tried to question Diak’s decision, telling him “30 years from now, your daughter might need a kidney or your son might need a kidney. But I just kinda look at it, 30 years from now, I might not even be here. It’s just kind of a life decision that I made for myself. Sometimes I make impulsive decisions like that, but once I make up my mind, that’s just what I want to do.
“Like I said, David and everybody else here that works at the sheriff’s office, I would do the same thing for them,” Diak says, “if they were in the same spot as David because I consider everybody here family. Especially with the work schedule, there’s a lot of times when we’re here a lot, more than we are sometimes at home, so you get to know your co-workers a lot more. That just makes it for me more family-related. That’s why I felt like I had to do it.”