Joel Solomon watched his father die of polycystic kidney disease when he was only 63 years old.
The disease took many of Solomon’s relatives; dad lived the longest.
Solomon, too, had gotten his own diagnosis when he was in his early 20s.
At the time of his diagnosis, Solomon had been working to help get Jimmy Carter elected president. He describes it as one of the unlikeliest things he’s seen: watching Carter rise in prominence from an obscure two-year governor of Georgia whom no one had heard of, to president of the United States, in the span of about 11 months.
Solomon started as a volunteer in the office early on and climbed the ranks as Carter’s star rose. Eventually, he was sent to work at the DNC for the campaign committee, which he was chairing.
Their election strategy was based on Carter’s being a moderate Southerner, but the campaign also relied heavily on Carter’s trademark folksiness. Carter, an ex-Navy lieutenant, would sleep in peoples’ homes along the campaign trail, and the so-called Peanut Brigade from his native Georgia would travel around to Iowa and other states to knock on doors.
George Wallace, Carter’s primary opponent for the Democratic nomination, was a racist governor from Alabama who was the early favorite to become the nominee.
I asked Solomon what their chances were like of beating Wallace.
“We thought we’d show in the top three in Iowa, top three in NH, we’ll come in second in Florida, and then maybe we’d have a shot at the nomination.”
But then, lightning struck: Carter won all three states. Wallace took a number of smaller states in the interim, and Massachusetts went to someone named Scoop Jackson, who just based on his awesome name I wish history had heard more from, but after Carter took Florida with 34% of the vote, it was all over; he won most every state that followed.
(Scoop Jackson came back again to clinch New York in April. Scoooop!)
Carter went on to secure the presidency, of course, winning his own home state of Georgia and also Solomon’s home state of Tennessee.
Fun fact: Jimmy Carter remains the only Democratic candidate since 1964 to win a majority of Southern states.
But Solomon didn’t get to enjoy the worked-for victory for long: He went to Carter’s inauguration party, but he’d spent most of the campaign battling a variety of symptoms and finally went to the doctor to receive the grim diagnosis: polycystic kidney disease, like his dad, like his grandmother, like his dad’s sister.
And so Solomon chose to take a pass on a career in Washington under the Carter administration.
Solomon had already, even at that early life phase, been through a lot. At age 18, he was trying to get elected to a National Democratic Party convention when he had moment of blanking-out on stage.
He froze, unable to speak.
He had been given three minutes to address the audience, but—and this is a nightmarish fear that a lot of people rate scarier than death — all of his prepared remarks had flown out of his head and he stood on the stage alone, panicking and feeling humiliated. He eventually walked off stage without saying anything. He still won the nomination, but it became, understandably, an emotional scar.
Later in life, the same thing happened to him again, and under very similar circumstances. This time, he was able to mumble out a few words after blanking out, but it was as stressful as it had been the first time. Solomon describes overcoming this trauma as one of the more difficult challenges of his life.
“Anybody who will listen, I’m ready,” Solomon says. “And to the many, many, many others of us who do have trouble for all kinds of reasons with sharing our voices. You gotta just do it. You gotta break through. Our voices, and what we understand, are dearly needed on the planet.
He’s now a TEDx speaker.
You would be easily excused for thinking Joel Solomon can literally do it all.
Solomon gives partial credit for that to a personal development group he joined in his mid 30s, which he describes as “a makeover of my own inner process.” The woman who conducted the workshop invited the six participants to think about the core story of their being.
The kidney-disease diagnosis, under whose cloud he’d been living for about a decade by that point, had always felt like a death sentence: “Now it caused me to think about the meaning of my life.”
I asked him to tell me more.
“It snapped me out of the luxurious confusion that can happen,” Solomon said. “It saved me. Oh: Death. Death is real. I could die. I mean, I’m gonna die. I could die sooner. And not later. What am I gonna do with my life.”
Life expectancy for sufferers of polycystic kidney disease can range anywhere from 53 to 70 years old.
Over a period of years following the diagnosis, Solomon had continued, and would continue, to get blood tests to test his kidney function. The results tracked steadily, if slowly, downward, and he witnessed his kidney function deteriorate, too. More than that, he felt the physical effects of that deterioration, to the point that even standing on stage was hard: at one function, he recalls, he had to lean against a table for support.
His blood type is B+, which is rare in Canada: about 7.5% of the population shares the type. The doctors told him he had two options: go on dialysis, or find a donor.
“So I’d go to parties,” he tells me, eyes twinkling, “and I’d say, ‘I’m studying a new form of astrology and I need to know your blood type.’ So it was a way to humanize it, joking about it.”
He also started thinking of his blood group not as B+, but “Be Positive.”
The mindset paid off. Solomon sent about 500 emails and got back a slew of offers from friends who shared his blood type. When his kidney function dipped below 10%, the doctors picked three prospective donors, and all four of them went for tests.
The eventual donor was an old friend, the woman who first got him involved with Hollyhock more than 38 years ago.
“She gave me her kidney. She’s one of the first people I met on Cortes,” Solomon says, referring to the small island off the Vancouver coast where Hollyhock Institute is situated.
On surgery day, Solomon had to arrive at St. Paul’s Hospital, which is in downtown Vancouver, before they would operate on his donor. So he arrived very early. The donor had her operation in the morning, then the surgeon bolted down a bowl of soup, and Solomon got ready for his operation in the afternoon.
He remembers coming back to consciousness, looking up, and seeing the clock on the wall, which read exactly 4:20 p.m.
A nurse in the room smiled down at him and said, “I do hands-on healing. Would you like me to now?” Solomon said yes, and referred to her as his healing angel thereafter.
“I actually enjoyed my hospital days,” Solomon said, recalling how the husband of his kidney donor had built a Facebook group so friends could keep up-to-date on the recovery. It became a party atmosphere as he healed: His hospital room was never empty, and friends brought potluck food for caregivers and visitors to enjoy.
When it was time for him to be discharged, the physicians asked him to come back for blood tests every other day, and then, finally, his lifelong ordeal was over.
He was free.
As he got out on the street, though, like so many days in Vancouver, rain was falling.
Solomon ran out of the front door of St. Paul’s anyway, screaming up at an uncooperative sky, and perhaps to the alarm of any Sunday pedestrians on their way home from church: “I just had a kidney transplant! I JUST HAD A KIDNEY TRANSPLANT!”
He smiles in recalling the moment now, and the words seem to come very easily.
“It turned out to be one of the great experiences of my life. Modern medicine. I mean, how amazing is that.”
Joel Solomon is a founding partner at Renewal Funds. He is husband to Dana Solomon, and their dog, Ziggy, is named after both Ziggy Marley and Ziggy Stardust. To sign up for the BC Organ Donor registry, click here.