How one person’s donor search led to the creation of a powerful new organization.
Finding Phil: Jeff Cohn’s Journey to Receiving His New Kidney
In the search for a kidney, you never really know where one conversation might lead. So many of the kidney donation stories you see in the news are seemingly random. Someone saw a yard sign. A hairdresser overheard a conversation. A man wore a t-shirt at Disneyworld asking for a kidney (he got one that day). An email got forwarded and re-forwarded so many times that the eventual donor was a complete stranger. This is how it goes sometimes in kidney donation, and it was true for Jeff, too.
In 2019, Jeff Cohn was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease. His kidney function was dropping rapidly, and immediate action was required for survival or he would be on dialysis for the rest of his life.
End-stage kidney disease is terrifying and debilitating. Upon hearing the diagnosis and learning about transplantation from his nephrologist, Jeff swiftly jumped into conducting his own research. He learned that one has to be their own advocate in searching for a matching donor. He started mapping out the people in his life he would ask for help. His loving partner Hector, unfortunately, wasn’t a match. Friends and family who did volunteer learned they were not matches either. He sent emails to college alumni groups that led nowhere, and before long, Jeff realized he would need to find a new approach.
The Campaign: Jeff Needs a Kidney
Jeff owns a marketing agency in Denver that was approaching its 20th year in business when he was diagnosed. Faced with the greatest challenge of his life, Jeff approached his situation as a true marketer. In less than a few weeks, Jeff and a few creative volunteers at his agency put together a warm, engaging and most importantly unique campaign titled, “Jeff Needs a Kidney” that centered on telling Jeff’s donor story through the eyes of his adorable goldendoodle Cooper. (“My buddy Jeff needs a kidney…” read the main headline.)
Jeff’s original pass at the story and campaign was more direct and straightforward. But Hector said he needed to find a more creative angle and the donor organizations all said to make the story one-of-a-kind. When he sat down to write the new approach, Cooper the Doodle came over and sat right next to Jeff. And the story of Cooper looking for a donor for his buddy was born. There were billboards (donated by local media companies), Facebook ads, and even the local news ran stories about Cooper and his “buddy” Jeff who needed a kidney. That news story ran in over 60 markets across the country.
The campaign not only worked, but it was one of the agency’s most successful ever. In total, approximately 85 people, all total strangers, came forward to try and save Jeff’s life. Unfortunately, not a single one of them was a good match. Jeff was right back at square one.
The Reddit referral
One of Jeff’s friends and work associates at his agency in Denver posted a call for donors on Reddit. Jeff didn’t even know it happened. Many, many people responded (none were matches), but one of the replies recommended Jeff contact a doctor he knew from college named Mike Rees. The Reddit stranger even provided Dr. Rees’ contact information. One email led to another, and suddenly Ira Brody, executive director of Kidneys in Common and an ally of Dr. Rees, reached out to learn more about Jeff. Ira said, “I think I can help Jeff.” Little did anyone know it would lead to a warm, lifelong friendship between the two.
Kidneys in Common, Jeff learned, is a donor advocacy organization. Jeff also learned about a new donor model that Ira was working on called “community-directed donation.” Instead of only relying on altruistic donors to make the difficult decision of donating to a complete stranger, or family and friends, what if the donor could give to a community of their choice? What if, for example, the donor could choose to give to her sorority, or a labor union of which they are a member, or to a fellow veteran? If community organizations of all types would agree to participate (at no cost to the organization), thousands of kidney donors could be found.
Kidneys for Communities is Born
While Ira and Kidneys in Common got to work in helping Jeff find a kidney, Jeff and his marketing agency got to work developing the marketing and public relations based on this new idea of community-directed donation. With the organization name of Kidneys for Communities, a new approach was born.
This concept was intuitive for Jeff. In the early days after his diagnosis, Jeff did actually reach out to his university alumni group, as well as his college fraternity alumni group. He asked if there were places to post his JeffNeedsAKidney.com website and if they would be able to help promote his story. But Jeff’s request for help went largely unheard. Reaching out to communities and organizations you belong to might be a really smart idea, in theory, but if the organization doesn’t have a structure in place to help, the conversation dries up quickly.
Therefore, the mission of Kidneys for Communities would aim to make it easier for these organizations to find and connect donors and recipients within their groups. At absolutely no cost to the organization, Kidneys for Communities would create promotional marketing, emails, landing pages, flyers, bumper stickers and anything else so that donors and recipients within a community could find each other more quickly.
Jeff Meets Phil
Meanwhile, Ira and Dr. Rees—who founded and operates the Alliance for Paired Kidney Donation—continued to work Jeff’s case looking for donors. Nearly 10 months after the “Jeff Needs a Kidney” campaign launched, Jeff received his kidney from an anonymous stranger made possible by Kidneys in Common and the Alliance for Paired Kidney Donation.
If you aren’t already familiar, paired kidney donation happens when a recipient in need (e.g., Jeff) has an incompatible donor (e.g., Hector). The incompatible donor makes a promise to donate a kidney in the future when a match is found for his kidney, and that leads to the recipient getting a donated kidney from an altruistic stranger. It’s an amazing idea born out of the mind of Dr. Rees in the early 2000s. Many people’s lives have been saved through paired donation.