Legally Speaking: The Greatest Gift

By John G. Browning | Mar 19, 2009

Previously in this column, I've written about lawyers as organ donors.

In July 2006's "A Life-Saving Decision," I examined the uplifting story of E.J. Walbourn, a federal prosecutor in the Cincinnati suburb of Covington, Ky. Diagnosed with kidney disease in 2000, Walbourn's condition deteriorated rapidly and he was placed on dialysis while awaiting a new kidney.

When U.S. Magistrate Judge Gregory Wehrman of the Eastern District of Kentucky learned of Walbourn's dire situation, he made an extraordinary offer: he would donate a kidney to the prosecutor he had seen appear so many times before him in court.

And so, after Walbourn's wife was unable to serve as a donor and after Judge Wehrman underwent testing that revealed he was a match, on June 20, 2006, the two lawyers lay side by side in an operating room at Christ Hospital as doctors removed one of Wehrman's kidneys and transplanted it into Walbourn.

As a result, Walbourn received a new lease on life. Of the judge, Walbourn says "This is a man who saved my life. It can't be only professional anymore."

Judge Wehrman's selflessness led me to look into similar cases in the legal profession, and I wrote about Missouri Judge Peggy Richardson and New York Judge Emily Pines, who are both altruistic kidney donors (one who donates to someone other than a relative or close friend).

Close to home, there is another judge who made an off-the-bench decision that had life-altering consequences. Kaufman County Court at Law Erleigh Norville Wiley donated a kidney on Valentine's Day 2008 to her husband, federal prosecutor Aaron Wiley, after he was diagnosed with kidney disease.

As extraordinary a gift as organ donation is when it is made to a family member, friend, or even a complete stranger, it is even more amazing when the donor elects to give this gift to a longtime adversary.

Yet that is precisely what happened Feb. 12 at Baylor Medical Center in Dallas when Keith Langston donated one of his kidneys to Scott Skelton. Both are lawyers, and both are graduates of Baylor Law School (Skelton graduated in 1992, while Langston graduated in 2001).

However, the two have been longtime adversaries. Skelton is a defense attorney with Lufkin's Zelesky Law Firm, while Langston is a plaintiff's attorney with the personal injury powerhouse Nix Patterson & Roach in Daingerfield.

For years, Langston and Skelton have faced off against each other in asbestos litigation, with Langston representing an estimated 4,000 clients asserting claims of asbestos-related injuries against Skelton's client John Crane Inc. The two lawyers had plenty of time to develop a bond of mutual respect.

According to Skelton, "We took depositions in his office probably 200 days a year for several years. That's how I got to know him. I think he always thought I treated his clients with respect and we got along."

But three years ago, after a routine life insurance physical, Skelton learned that he had IgA nephropathy. It is an autoimmune disorder that causes total kidney failure in fewer than 25 percent of the adults afflicted with the disease. The affliction (which has no symptoms early on and can be silent for years) occurs when IgA (a protein that helps the body resist infections) settles in the kidneys. By Thanksgiving of 2008, Skelton learned that he was among that 25 percent and would need either a kidney transplant or lifetime dialysis.

"I was obviously scared and concerned," says Skelton, "but I wasn't devastated because I knew that people can live full and fruitful lives with dialysis, but it would be a lifestyle change."

However, there were other complicating factors. Patients who undergo dialysis prior to receiving a donor kidney have a higher risk of organ rejection and other complications.

And getting a kidney from a deceased donor has a lower success rate than live donations do – 80 percent success versus 90 percent success, according to the National Kidney Foundation.

While family members and friends underwent testing in hope of proving to be the match Skelton needed for a live donation, the attorney's kidneys were failing. He was running out of time.

Another lawyer with Langston's firm learned of Skelton's worsening condition while attending a continuing legal education seminar in Houston, and she shared the news with Langston. Langston immediately called Skelton and said "I want to donate you a kidney."

Langston underwent a whirlwind of tests.

"I wanted to give Scott and my donated organ the best chance possible, and that meant acting quickly to keep him off of dialysis. He wouldn't have made it another two weeks."

Indeed, Skelton was down to only 8 percent kidney function.

Langston proved to be a match, and so on Feb. 12, the two lawyers found themselves once again in the same room – only instead of squaring off in a courtroom as adversaries, they were side by side for some two hours on operating tables.

Langston says the procedure is a relatively simple one for donors.

"I don't think many people realize this, but the donor surgery is done laparoscopically now, with the exception of removing the kidney. I have 4 puncture wounds and a 3 inch incision line," he says.

The transplant operation was a success; within two days after surgery, Skelton's lab results were normal. Both attorneys are doing well and are out of the hospital, although Skelton planned to stay in a Dallas apartment for several weeks due to the need for frequent follow-up trips to the doctor.

Since the surgery, the two have been talking about cases, and about an even more important project: working together as advocates for live donation.

"There are 80,000 people on the kidney donor list, and we could wipe that list out through live donation," says Langston.

The procedure requires only willingness and roughly a week's worth of time from a donor.

According to the National Kidney Foundation, nearly 7,000 people each year on the national waiting list die for lack of a donor.

As Scott Skelton reflects on the blog he's kept about the whole experience, "I learned that the greatest gift that you can give is to put others first."

You don't have to be a judge or a lawyer to make a decision that can mean the difference between life and death.

To find out more about how to become a live donor, pay an online visit to or To learn more about Scott Skelton's journey, you can check out his blog at

John Browning is a partner in the Dallas office of Gordon & Rees, LLP. He may be contacted at:

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