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Giving the 'gift of life'
Local educator donates kidney to save friend's life
Pinecrest Academy's Executive Director Rick Swygman, right, and Charles Barkie recently came home from Emory University Hospital's Kidney Transplant Center after Swygman donated one of his kidneys to save Barkie's life. - photo by Submitted
Most educators give the gift of knowledge, but the executive director of a local private school recently gave much more.

Pinecrest Academy's Rick Swygman and Charles Barkie, a father of four, recently came home from Emory University Hospital's Kidney Transplant Center after Swygman donated one of his kidneys to save Barkie's life.

The Swygman and Barkie families met about two years ago when the families' eldest daughters -- Sammi Swygman, 17, and Lauren Barkie, 18 -- became close friends, Swygman said.

Barkie's wife, Barbara, said the family developed a friendship, largely due to their similarities. Both have four children of similar ages. The Barkie's kids include Jenna, 15, Conner, 9, and Justin, 6. The oldest two attend Pinecrest.

The Swygman's clan includes Jack, 16, and 7-year-old twins Jessi and Samuel.

"We both have two families in a sense, so that made both of our families kind of unique," she said.

As a result of the family friendship, the two men developed their own bond.

"Charlie and I got together so often, you know, we'd go grab lunch together, things like that," Swygman said.

The journey to the transplant center began more than a year ago, when Barkie was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder called Uromodulin Associated Kidney Disease, or UMAK.

Barkie, who owns Body Choice Nutrition in Orange County, Calif., said he was flying back and forth to the West Coast every two weeks when he started feeling tired all the time.

"I thought it was just from getting older and jet lag," said Barkie, 47.

In May 2008, he learned otherwise. A few days after a routine doctor's visit, he got a call telling him he needed to check into a hospital within 45 minutes. He was in stage 5 kidney failure, the most severe, in which a patient must go on dialysis or have a transplant to stay alive.

Shortly thereafter he was placed on peritoneal dialysis -- and the organ donation list.

One night last summer, Swygman decided he would be tested for a possible kidney match.

"Charlie was so sick and talking about how much he needed a live donor, but that the doctors were having a hard a time finding one," Swygman said.

Since Barkie's condition is genetic, his family members might also have the same condition, thus eliminating them as donors.

After discovering he and Barkie had the same blood type, Swygman joined three others from the community who volunteered to give Barkie a kidney if they proved to be viable matches.

"It meant so much to have four people volunteer to give me a kidney," Barkie said. "It was very touching, especially since we had just moved here from California a few years ago.

"This community is amazing. If I had still been in California when all this happened, I know I wouldn't have had a donor because people just don't do things like that there."

After months of various tests, Swygman said he went from being "a possible donor to the best possible donor."

The Swygman family never wavered in wanting to help Barkie.

"My family has been totally onboard from the get go," Swygman said.

He recalled one night a few months ago when daughter Sammi called him in tears after visiting with Lauren Barkie.

"I remember her calling me and crying, saying, 'Are you really going to do this dad? We need to hurry because Lauren's afraid her dad's not going to make it,'" he said.

Barbara Barkie said she's overwhelmed with gratitude to the entire Swygman family.

"It's meant a whole new life for us," she said. "I told Rick in the hospital, you can't imagine what kind of gift you've given us. You've given the gift of life."

She also noted the support of Swygman's wife, Kathy.

"I know Kathy pushed Rick to do what needed to be done," she said. "At Emory, the donor is responsible for getting a lot of the work pushed through and I know Kathy would call Rick during the day and say, 'Have you called Emory today?'"

Charles Barkie added that in appreciation of the gift Swygman has given him, he and his family want to also "give back" more.

For starters, he's taking part in a clinical trial for a new organ anti-rejection medication. He said the medication, which the FDA may approve as early as next year, could greatly reduce the number of anti-rejection medications organ recipients must take.

While it's not known if Barkie's body will completely accept the new kidney, his prognosis seems bright.

The Emory Kidney Transplant Center is one of the nation's leading transplant centers and one of just three in the state.

According to information from Emory's Web site, hospital staff completed Georgia's first kidney transplant in 1966. Today the center conducts nearly 150 transplants each year from both deceased and living donors.

So far so good for Barkie. He said his levels of creatinine, a chemical that shows if kidneys are functioning properly, have been better than Swygman's.

"For a donation, they want the levels to be under 2," he said. "[When I last went to the doctor], mine were 1.29 and Rick's were around 1.4. I joked with him that he must have given me his good kidney."

Swygman agreed.

"I'm proud of my kidney," he said.