Wellness April 11, 2024

Former rival becomes kidney donor for Maryland man

WATCH: 2 pool players, once rivals, are friends for life after kidney transplant

Two pool players who were once competitors in a high stakes pool tournament have become lifelong friends after a kidney transplant brought them together.

James Harris Jr. of Glen Burnie, Maryland, and Russ Redhead of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, first met about a decade ago at The Bank Shot Bar & Grill in Maryland, where they were playing against each other in an American Poolplayers Association tournament.

At the time, the two were vying for the top prize, an all-expenses paid trip to Las Vegas, allowing the winner to compete further in the tournament for a bigger reward.

Courtesy of Denise Epps-Harris
James Harris Jr. and Russ Rudhead became lifelong friends after undergoing a kidney transplant.

After losing to Harris, Redhead was upset and took his frustration to Facebook, criticizing Harris in a post at the time. However, mutual friends who had seen the post later defended Harris in the comment section, prompting Redhead to eventually take the post down and apologize to Harris.

"And then I learned over time that Harris is actually a really good guy," Redhead, 42, told "Good Morning America." "And, you know, we went to other tournaments together, we would bet on people together and stuff like that … so we really started to bond [from] there."

Over the years, that bond grew, and the two ended up spending more time with each other and sharing their passion for pool competitions.

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In 2020, Harris, who had been suffering from kidney disease, was told he had complete renal failure after contracting COVID-19. He said the medical staff at the University of Maryland Medical Center immediately wheeled him into surgery to place a catheter so they could get him on dialysis.

"I didn't know dialysis automatically means ... renal failure, which means your kidneys are no longer working. So that means you need a transplant -- but they don't spring all that on you at once," recalled Harris, now 54, who was later placed on the UMMC transplant waiting list, with the understanding that he might wait years for a matching donor kidney, according to the hospital.

After finding out about her husband's health, Harris' wife Denise said she "stepped up to the plate" and volunteered to become his kidney donor.

Courtesy of Denise Epps-Harris
James Harris Jr. and his wife Denise Epps-Harris, who works as a rehabilitation service manager at UMMC.

To check if she was a match, Denise Harris, who works as a rehabilitation service manager at UMMC, went through the testing process at the hospital's transplant center.

"So after all of the workup was done, it turned out that I was not eligible," she shared.

She then decided to attend a seminar called Big Ask, Big Give, a transplant education program run by the National Kidney Foundation to provide guidance on how to look for living donors, per its website.

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She said she shared her husband's story and his need for a donor in a pool tournament group on Facebook, and encouraged friends and family to get tested to see if they could become living donors and potentially reduce the wait time for her husband to get a transplant.

Finding hope

In November 2022, while hanging out with Redhead at a pool tournament, Denise Harris opened up about her husband's health issues.

Courtesy of Denise Epps-Harris
James Harris Jr. and Russ Rudhead became lifelong friends after undergoing a kidney transplant.

Redhead shared, "After she told me all the things that you need to be a donor, I looked at her, and I was like, 'Well, I'll do it.'"

In response, Redhead said Denise "started bawling, crying," and told him, "You don't even know what that means to us," before the two embraced each other.

After undergoing testing, and learning that he was a perfect match for his former pool rival, Redhead and James Harris underwent a successful kidney transplant on Feb. 8, 2024 at UMMC.

Courtesy of University of Maryland Medical Center
James Harris Jr. and Russ Rudhead were once opponents as pool players.
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One month after undergoing the procedure, Dr. Richard Ugarte, who helped manage James Harris' care, gave an update on his recovery in a video interview from UMMC, noting that he was "doing very well."

"We see people for one month after transplant weekly, and this is now his fourth visit," Ugarte explained. "He's doing great and he's been set up to go to the transplant clinic, which [means] he gets to go down to just once a month visits now, and he'll do his labs as an outpatient."

"He's graduating the way we hope everyone usually does," Ugarte added.

As Redhead reflected on his decision to become James Harris' donor, he told "GMA" it was "the right thing to do."

"Someone needed my kidney to help save their life. And if I can do that without any real change to my body and my life, I mean, why not?" he said.