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October 19, 2019

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Ray Brewer: From the Pressbox

ray brewer:

Former Durango basketball star not quitting in fight for donated kidney

Martrel Johnson

Courtesy Martrel Johnson

Martrel Johnson

Plea for a new kidney

Martrel Johnson could have done anything he wanted on the basketball court. Against any opponent.

“We called him the man child,” says Al La Rocque, his former coach at Durango High. “When he came in as a freshman, he was just a beast.”

So when Johnson didn’t appear to be giving his best effort at the beginning of his senior season in 2001-02, La Rocque immediately questioned the conditioning level of his star player. After Johnson continued to be slowed, La Rocque told the 6-foot-4 all-state forward not to return to practice until he received a doctor’s physical.

“I remember one game against Cimarron and how I couldn’t make it past half-court,” Johnson said.

That physical started what has been more than a decade of hospital stays, treatments and frustration about waiting for a donor for a second kidney transplant.

The first transplant came in 2002 during his senior season, but his body rejected the kidney he received from his father. Doctors took the donated kidney out in 2007 because he was urinating blood.

He’s been on a waiting list since for another kidney, having moved to Wisconsin and now Florida for better medical care. Other than urinating, he has no functioning kidney.

That’s not the only problem.

In 2009, when he was more tired than usual and couldn’t seem to catch his breath, doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota decided to check his heart. He had a defective valve and needed open-heart surgery.

“Of course I get disappointed,” Johnson said. “But it’s the same philosophy I used in basketball when I played at Durango. Even if you are bigger than me, I will still go at you. I will still beat you.”

He takes 20 pills a day to survive. Three times each week, he has dialysis treatment of about five hours. Those drain his energy much more than a basketball game, but it’s part of the survival mode that has become his life.

“Dialysis is like running a long-distance race in the shortest amount of time, like sprinting,” said Johnson, 30. “It’s like going 100 percent the whole time. When I get home, I am completely drained and tired. I can’t do much the rest of the day.”

Johnson’s voice breaks in and out during our conversation. Dry mouth is one of the effects of dialysis.

If it were up to Johnson, we’d talk strictly basketball. I’d love to hear about those games with Bishop Gorman, and he’d love to rehash moments from what was the city’s fiercest rivalry.

He averaged double digits in points and rebounds for Durango and was a four-year varsity player. During his sophomore season, Durango lost in the state championship game. He played briefly in college at Montana State.

“Even when I was sick, I would still score 20 points a game,” he proudly says.

But this call is about searching for a donor. He’s asking for your help. Most are born with two kidneys; you need just one to live. One woman who was a blood and tissue match and willing to donate her kidney was rejected because she had high blood pressure.

There are 93,000 people in need of a kidney transplant in the United States, according to the United Network of Organ Sharing. Some have waited more than 10 years.

“They say there is always a kidney out there for someone; you just have to wait,” Johnson said. “I just need to get a lot of people tested. If I wait around, it might never happen.”

Johnson approaches searching for a donor like he did basketball. He’s relentless. From setting up a donor page on Facebook, making fundraising shirts and reaching out to transplant organizations, he’s doing everything possible in the search.

Being tested to be a donor match is anonymous. If there is a match, the donor nonprofit pays for everything.

“Martrel was part of our family. He ate at the house and played with my kids,” La Rocque said. “I don’t want to be negative, but it is so sad with what’s happen to him. The kid can’t catch a break.”

Ray Brewer can be reached at 990-2662 or [email protected]. Follow Ray on Twitter at

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