Las Vegas Sun

July 19, 2019

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A former Las Vegas basketball star is hanging onto life, and asking for help

Martrel Johnson

Brandi Johnson/Mellow Gypsy Photography

Martrel Johnson

Athletes have their off days. But Martrel Johnson was suddenly having a hard time getting up and down the basketball court he’d dominated.

Before his senior year at Durango High School, he started feeling the effects of focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, a kidney disease that scars and hinders the parts of the organ that filter out waste. Plagued by low energy and breathing problems, Johnson was sent by his coach for a physical. That’s when he discovered not only that he had the disease, but also that he was in kidney failure.

“My kidneys were so far gone they couldn’t even do a biopsy,” Johnson said.

His father, Martin, donated a kidney in 2002. While Johnson rebounded after the transplant and became a standout forward at Montana State University, his health wouldn’t last. His breathing issues flared back up, and in 2007, his body rejected the donated kidney. Then in 2009, during a related work-up at the nonprofit Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., doctors discovered he was born with an anomalous coronary artery and ended up doing a double bypass surgery to fix it.

On top of losing the kidney, Johnson developed antibodies to its foreign tissue, making it harder to find another match. He also has been dealing with antiphospholipid syndrome, a clotting disorder that has threatened his lung function and sent him to the hospital multiple times. And Johnson said his doctor believes the hemodialysis that kept him alive for years without functioning kidneys also strained his heart. Despite switching to daily peritoneal dialysis this year, he was recently told that his heart is failing.

Click to enlarge photo

Johnson during a recent trip to a Salt Lake City hospital.

“I just ended up winning the lottery with this stuff,” Johnson said.

The 32-year-old is living in Bozeman, Mont., with his in-laws and wife, Brandi. He’s waiting for another appointment at the Mayo Clinic, where he’ll be tested for physical eligibility to be put on lists for a new kidney and heart.

“He wants to work, but he can’t. ... If I work full-time, they’ll take away his benefits, which are very minimal,” Brandi said of her husband’s Medicaid status. Supporters have raised nearly $10,000 since Johnson’s mother created a GoFundMe page two years ago, but he needs another $20,000 to reach his goal.

It would cover living costs, medicine and transportation once he was cleared for surgery and had to move near the Minnesota hospital, but under out-of-state Medicaid, he said the evaluations alone could cost up to $30,000 (heart) and $10,000 (kidneys).

In addition to the GoFundMe campaign, Johnson launched an indie fundraiser offering custom-designed shirts and hoodies that say, “Got Kidneys?”

One of his high school classmates, Rob Martinez, put together a fitness boot camp this year at Durango, and “Workout for Martrel” raised about $3,000.

“Martrel was a big part of my memories from high school and had an impact on my personality with his work ethic and amazing attitude,” Martinez said.

On Facebook, Johnson’s mother said, “We don’t need likes; we need someone to step up and get tested (for a match). Please, someone help save a life.”

But without a heart, kidneys don’t matter. Johnson said he’d often thought about how different his life would have been if doctors had discovered his heart condition sooner.

“It’s almost like, if something was done differently, it could have changed where I am at now,” he said.

Growing up, Johnson envisioned playing basketball overseas and traveling to places like Egypt, Tokyo and New Zealand. But he faces a different reality.

“Now, it’s just fighting. I fight every day to figure out what I need to do to survive and to beat this,” he said. “My legacy is that I was a fighter and never gave up, and live life like I always have.”


Want to help Martrel?

• Visit Martrel’s Medical Fund on GoFundMe, or his indie fundraiser page for "Got Kidneys?" shirts, hoodies and stickers.

• If you’re interested in being tested to see if you’re a potential match to donate a kidney, contact Johnson directly through his Facebook page.

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