Doesn’t happen often - He gave a kidney to his brother, then he needed a spare

Patient Story

It was years ago when Harambee Purnell donated a kidney to his older brother. He didn’t give a second thought to “what if I need a kidney later?” That time came recently when Purnell needed a transplant.

By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes, tfender1@iuhealth.org

People who know him say Harambee Purnell would do anything for anyone. He’s known for helping stranded motorists change flat tires, coaching youth sports, lending a hand at the local food pantry, and visiting the sick and elderly.

So it came as little surprise to those who know him well, that 16 years ago when his older brother James King needed a kidney, Purnell stepped up as the donor. King said his kidney failed as a result of undiagnosed hypertension. He was living in Indianapolis at the time; Purnell was back in their home state, Arizona.

When King was admitted to IU Health Methodist Hospital, Purnell was there to donate his kidney. He hasn’t left Indianapolis since. Years went by. King’s health improved and Purnell never worried a bit about his own health. He was a high school athlete and landed a scholarship that had him playing football for the University of Arizona. At one point he weighed in at a strapping 230 pounds.

Purnell’s father was a Baptist pastor and his mom was a steel mill worker.

“They were strict disciplinarians and enforced education, manners and taking care of others,” said Purnell, 47. His fondest memories were hiking the southwest mountains and exploring nature in his desert state. His mother had just passed when he moved to Indiana and his father died in May. “I promised my mom I’d take care of my brother,” said Purnell. His family members joke that Purnell doesn’t quite realize that he’s the younger brother.

Life was going well for Purnell in Indiana. Armed with a business degree he pursued a career in sales. Nine years ago he married his wife Vatania, a woman he met at church. He has two sons, Sean Purnell, 9; and Donald Williams, 21.

Then in February 2016, during a regular check up, a mass was discovered on Purnell’s kidney. He was diagnosed with kidney and bladder cancer. In the past four years, he has been hospitalized 15 times, including procedures to remove his kidney, bladder and prostate. He was on hemodialysis until he recently received a kidney transplant under the care of IU Health Dr. William Goggins.

“It’s very unusual to have a kidney transplant patient who has also been a kidney donor,” said Dr. Goggins, who joined IU Health in July of 2003. “Since I’ve been here, I think I’ve only performed about three or four surgeries on patients who have been donors, and the last one was about six years ago.” In Purnell’s case, he would have been able to live a full life with a single kidney, but the cancer changed his health. As a result, once he was listed for a new kidney, he received a call within three months. His transplant coordinator is Cindy Fox.

“I think the world of the team here at IU Health. Dr. Goggins has been very down to earth and informative,” said Purnell.

By the gathering of family members in the surgery waiting room, it was apparent that many also admire Purnell.

“He’s my cousin by designation but my brother by relation,” said Derick Stone who had traveled from Louisville to be with Purnell through surgery. His twin brother Erick Stone traveled from Phoenix. The two have been with Purnell during every procedure.

“He is the last person you’d think would get sick,” said his wife. “He’s determined and outgoing and a true humanitarian. He’d visit people in the hospital and they’d tell him about their health and he never mentioned that he had cancer. Through the whole thing he never lost his determination even when the cancer kept coming back,” said Vatania Purnell. “When they told him they needed to remove his bladder and prostate, he said ‘do what you need to do.’ He’s almost invincible and he has a strong faith.”

Purnell worked physically and mentally to prepare for his March 6th transplant.

“I’m naturally active but I had to moderate my exercise and change my diet. I went from drinking 64 ounces of water to 20 ounces a day because I almost drowned in my own fluid,” he said. By the time he went in for surgery he had dropped to 180 pounds. “I also focused on my faith. My motto has always been ‘I’m not going down without a fight,’” said Purnell. “That’s where I am now. I’m in a fight to get my health back and I’m not fighting it alone.”

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