Professional bond inspires gift of life

Two doctors involved in a transplant hope to raise awareness about donating organs to nonfamily members.

By Damon Adams — Posted Aug. 23, 2004

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Twenty-four years ago, Charles Tesar, MD, was a young medical resident learning how to practice medicine. Richard Fassett, MD, was his residency chair, the mentor who gave him guidance, instruction and reassurance.

Last month Dr. Tesar gave Dr. Fassett something as well.

A kidney.

The transplant has strengthened the bond the physicians have shared since 1980, when Dr. Tesar started his residency under Dr. Fassett at Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego.

For years since, the two otolaryngologists have worked side by side in the operating room with Dr. Fassett assisting the man he helped sculpt into a doctor.

Dr. Tesar didn't hesitate to volunteer a kidney when hereditary kidney disease left his colleague needing one. In the weeks following the surgery, the two San Diego doctors have talked by phone every day, been out to breakfast together during their recovery and taken strolls along the California coastline.

The two don't call each other Richard and Charles. It's Dick and Chuck.

Dr. Tesar "comes over and pats me on the belly and says, 'How you doing?' I think he wants to make sure I'm taking good care of his kidney," said Dr. Fassett, 65, who is semi-retired.

Dr. Tesar started looking up to Dr. Fassett early in his residency.

"He just seemed like such a good leader, very calm, and he projected real confidence. He would always give great guidance," said Dr. Tesar, 54. "There was something about Dr. Fassett that you really wanted to give your best."

A few years after completing his residency, Dr. Tesar joined a medical group in San Diego. Dr. Fassett worked at the hospital where Dr. Tesar performed surgeries.

Soon, Dr. Fassett was the primary assistant surgeon for Dr. Tesar and other surgeons in his group. Every Tuesday, the two would operate together at Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego.

"You really develop a strong tie with the person who stands across from you in surgery," Dr. Tesar said. "He has always been that calm voice in the storm."

Family history of kidney trouble

Dr. Fassett started having problems with fatigue a few years ago. Lab work indicated genetic kidney disease. His father was hooked up to a dialysis machine for 14 years. Another relative was on dialysis. The hereditary disease ruled out family members as donors.

Dr. Tesar found out about his colleague's need for a kidney one day last winter as the two physicians scrubbed for surgery together.

When Dr. Fassett confided the news, "My jaw dropped," Dr. Tesar said.

Dr. Fassett said he was checking to see if his wife would be a compatible donor.

About two weeks later, Dr. Fassett told Dr. Tesar his wife was not a possible donor. Dr. Tesar then offered one of his kidneys.

"I told him I think I could do that," Dr. Tesar recalled.

"I looked at him and said, 'You would do that for me?' " Dr. Fassett said. "He said, 'Sure, I've got one and you need one.' "

Dr. Tesar said his offer wasn't a way to pay back his colleague for the guidance he got as a resident.

"It can't come out of debt. It has to come out of wanting to give," Dr. Tesar said.

On the morning of July 7, both doctors went for the kidney transplant at Sharp Memorial Hospital. Dr. Tesar had some words for his departing kidney.

"My direction was you're going to go over there and kick butt and make some urine," he said.

Dr. Fassett, meanwhile, worried that if something went wrong with the transplant, his friend's livelihood as a doctor would be hurt.

"When our eyes crossed paths on the way out [for surgery], we both had tears," Dr. Tesar said.

The surgery lasted seven hours and was a success. Neither doctor has experienced complications. Their recovery rooms were next door to each other, and Dr. Fassett visited Dr. Tesar the following day.

"We sort of kept it light-hearted with big hugs and genuine thank you's," Dr. Fassett said. "It's a real strange feeling. How would you ever thank somebody for offering a gift like that?"

Each spent their recovery at home. Dr. Tesar read, relaxed and took naps without guilt. Dr. Fassett cleaned out closets and tried to stay active. They spoke daily by phone.

The two were expected to return to practice in mid-August.

"I'm actually getting better every day," Dr. Tesar said. "It's not painful. It just knocks the air out of you."

Both hope their story raises awareness of the importance of unrelated living donors.

"If there's anyone out there who is considering making a contribution to a friend, they should do it. Because for me, life is good again," Dr. Fassett said.

"Chuck and I have become like family," he added. "How can you not include somebody like that in your life?"

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