Florida storm chaser receives life-saving kidney transplant from wife at Miami Transplant Institute
By: Krysten Brenlla
For Jeffery Gammons, 49, chasing storms and capturing them on camera has been a form of therapy for more than 30 years. However, when his kidney health began to decline, the thrill of the chase was put on hold.
Jeff’s complicated health journey began as a child in the 1970s when he was diagnosed with neuroblastoma – a rare cancer that develops in nerve tissue – at 2 years old. He had to have surgery to remove the mass on his spine, which caused him to develop temporary paralysis. By the time he was 8 years old, however, Jeff was in full remission and able to walk.
He never would have thought that years later, his kidneys and heart would fail.
“When you’re 20, you don’t really think about your health. I felt strong and life was great,” Jeff said. “But as I reached adulthood, I realized I was having problems with my kidneys, and I developed hypertension as a result of the treatments I did as a child.”
In addition to his hypertension, Jeff developed a kidney infection that landed him in the hospital, which is when he discovered he was living with only 30 percent kidney function. Despite his declining health, he continued to live normally.
Years later, Jeff collapsed and had to be rushed to the hospital again. This time, he was suffering from a large hole in his heart, and needed to have his aortic valve repaired.
By May 2001, Jeff was in good health and back to storm chasing. However, by 2004, his kidneys completely failed. He needed dialysis, and eventually a kidney transplant, to survive.
“The summer of 2004, which is the summer that had Florida’s biggest hurricanes, was when I knew my kidneys were gone,” Jeff said. “Peritoneal dialysis was horrible, but luckily, just a few years later, I was saved with my first kidney transplant.”
On April 12, 2009, Jeff received his first transplant at the Miami Transplant Institute (MTI), an affiliation between Jackson Health System and UHealth – University of Miami Health System.
“I got 13 years out of that kidney,” he said. “I was healthy that entire time; I was blessed with my son, and found my wife, Sara, with that transplant. Life was good for me.”
Nevertheless, in 2020, Jeff started to experience issues with the transplanted kidney. He sought treatment, but by the end of 2022, he started planning for another transplant.
In April 2023, Jeff went to MTI to begin his initial evaluation. He met with Giselle Guerra, MD, medical director of the kidney transplant program at MTI, who shared details about the center’s living kidney donor program. Immediately, Sara Gammons, who accompanied her husband to every appointment, applied to be his donor.
“When we left MTI, they said, ‘if you have someone in your life who wants to be a donor, give them this information,’ so I applied that very day,” Sara said. “I remember telling Jeff, ‘whatever we do, you’re not going on dialysis again.’ If it’s up to me, I was going to help.”
To their surprise, Sara was a perfect match. After several months of tests and preparation, the Gammons received the call they were waiting for – the transplant procedure was scheduled.
“Jeffery was deteriorating fast. We did everything we could to transplant him while he was still in optimal condition,” Dr. Guerra said. “What makes MTI so unique is we can work up living donors safely and efficiently, which, in turn, helps the recipient have the most successful, immediate transplant outcome and better quality of life.”
On September 19, 2023, a multidisciplinary team, led by Rodrigo Vianna, MD, PhD, MTI’s director of transplant services and chief of liver, intestinal, and multivisceral transplant, performed a robotic living kidney donor nephrectomy on Sara, allowing her to recover in half the expected time. Gaetano Ciancio, MD, MTI’s chief academic and medical officer and director of the kidney and kidney-pancreas programs, transplanted Jeff.
Both surgeries were successful, and after a few days in the hospital, they were discharged with minimal pain.
Today, the Gammons are recovering and plan to live a healthy lifestyle. Just one month after their surgeries, they felt ready to go back to doing what they love the most – chasing storms, together.
“There’s a huge weight that’s been lifted. We have our life back,” Sara said.
“I’m so proud of Sara, and I still can’t believe she would do this for me,” Jeff said. “I owe it all to her, and the teams at Jackson and at MTI, for this second chance at life.”