Gift from the heart: Retired Navy captain donates kidney


The first time Anne Langer met John Geragotelis, she butchered his last name.

It was 1986. She was on her way to the World’s Fair in Vancouver, B.C., when she stopped in Oak Harbor to visit her best friend and meet the man she’d only heard about.

She immediately spotted the embroidered writing on his flight suit, and blurted out what proved to be a mouthful, missing the mark by a syllable or two.

“I didn’t say it right,” she said. “I do remember that.”

Langer laughs at the memory, amazed at how young she was at the time and how simple life seemed to be.

Any thought that the man with a funny name standing before her would profoundly impact not only the life of her best friend, but hers as well, was inconceivable back then.

Last April, John Geragotelis gave Anne Langer a gift so vital that she will forever be in his debt.

He gave her one of his kidneys.

For years, he and his wife, Diane Geragotelis, felt helpless watching the health and lifestyle of their longtime friend from California decline from two diseases that caused her kidneys to fail.

Langer’s kidney function deteriorated to the point where she knew that she would soon need an organ transplant to keep her from going on dialysis.

Fearing that her kidneys might not hold out long enough after she qualified to get on a waiting list, she learned about a way to receive a new kidney that didn’t involve waiting for someone to die.

She learned about living kidney donations and how a healthy person who has a matching blood type and meets other criteria could be a candidate to help those facing uncertain futures like her.

Since the first successful living donor transplant in 1954, more than 50,000 procedures involving kidneys have been performed.

The living donor program gave Langer a new reason to hope, offering a refreshing departure from some of the grim statistics she’d read about those on kidney transplant lists.

According to statistics kept by the National Kidney Foundation, more than 101,000 in the United States alone are currently awaiting kidney transplants.

The wait can last years. An average of 12 people die each day awaiting a donation.

John and Diane Geragotelis pledged to do anything in their power to not let Langer meet that fate.

After Langer’s husband and a childhood friend didn’t meet certain criteria, Diane Geragotelis stepped forward to undergo testing to see if she was a match, but her husband interceded.

He knew she feared needles but also knew she’d do anything to help her best friend since grade school.

She had her blood tested anyway and wasn’t a match.

“Diane has a huge heart,” John Geragotelis said.

Soon it was determined that John Geragotelis’ blood was a match.

A retired Navy captain who spent 26 years in military service, Geragotelis maintained optimal physical fitness so he felt he was as good a candidate as any. He underwent extensive testing at Stanford Hospital, which initially revealed an issue with blood vessels around one kidney. Doctors gave him a 10 percent chance of being approved as a donor.

“I came back and Anne was a little disappointed,” Geragotelis said. “Of course, I kept praying through all this. I’m a very religious person.”

He told Langer not to worry and a week later got word that he was approved.

A week after that, he was back at Stanford Hospital having his kidney removed while Langer was in another room waiting to receive it.

Geragotelis remembers phoning Langer to tell her that he had been approved and they began talking about the surgery date and recovery schedule. Langer mentioned an upcoming 40th high school reunion in Pinole, Calif.

“I said, ‘Anne, what are you waiting for? This is a matter of life or death. Who cares about the high school reunion,’” Geragotelis said. “She said, ‘You’re right.’”

Langer, 58, made the reunion and is making an exceptional recovery.

She was told that she had only days until dialysis would have been a necessary part of her life. The combination of an auto-immune disease and type 1 diabetes had taken a major toll on her kidney functioning.

A former lab technician at Stanford, her condition had become so debilitating, and her energy level so low, that she could no longer work.

Geragotelis, who also has recovered well and is able to function normally with one kidney, remembers seeing the life come back to Langer’s face the first time he saw her the day after surgery.

“She had a million IV’s coming out of her,” Geragotelis said. “You could tell already she had this glow about her. It was really special.”

Geragotelis’ surgery took five hours and left him with a 5-inch scar on his stomach and considerable discomfort in his abdomen for about two weeks.

But he said he’d do it all over again.

“I wish I had three kidneys so I could do it again,” he said. “The sacrifice for me was 10 weeks of exercise with leisure golfing. The effect it’s made on Anne’s life has just been life changing for her. I don’t want to say, ‘life saving.’”

Diane Geragotelis begged to differ.

“He saved my best friend’s life,” she said. “It’s kind of amazing to me that the guy I fell in love with that is my best friend also saved the girl who I’ve known since we were 10 and I love her dearly.”

Langer’s impression of John Geragotelis three decades ago when she couldn’t pronounce his name was favorable. It continues to be.

“I think this is really consistent with his character. He’s that kind of guy,” she said. “He’s very brave. He’s flown  missions with the Navy off aircraft carriers. He was saying, ‘I’ve done a lot of things that I’ve needed to be brave for but this was nothing.’ Well, I don’t think it’s nothing. He’s so matter of fact. He has a good heart. He prayed about it, thought about it and didn’t have a doubt. So I didn’t have a doubt.”