Jermaine Chambers (left) and Gerard Daphnis during Wednesday's National Donate Life Month event, held at Jackson Memorial Hospital. Photo: Jackson Health System 

By Robert C. Jones Jr.

Jermaine Chambers (left) and Gerard Daphnis during Wednesday's National Donate Life Month event, held at Jackson Memorial Hospital. Photo: Jackson Health System 

Teammates for life

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
When Gerard Daphnis needed a new kidney, his former UM football teammate stepped up to the plate, strengthening the bond between the two.

During the darkest days of his life, Gerard Daphnis saw himself inching closer and closer to death—his once-powerful athletic body becoming frail and weak.

For the 44-year-old Miami resident, it was a difficult pill to swallow. As a young man, he played football for the Miami Hurricanes, signing with the storied football program in 1992 out of Norland High School as a tight end.

Those who play the position are among the strongest and arguably most-versatile players on any football squad—herculean athletes who are required to block powerful defensive linemen but also run intricate routes into the opposing team’s backfield to catch passes while being guarded by agile and much faster defenders.

Daphnis was no different. But years after his playing days, here he was, slowly becoming a shadow of the man he once was.

He had been a diabetic for years and had always managed his condition well. Now, matters were suddenly worse. Doctors at the Miami Transplant Institute (MTI), an affiliation between Jackson Health System and UHealth – University of Miami Health System, told him he needed a new kidney. But that was easier said that done.

Nearly 95,000 people in the U.S. are on the waiting list for a new kidney, according to data from the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. Yet annual kidney donations meet only 5 percent of that need. And even with a willing donor, a third of the candidates waiting for a new kidney do not match their intended donor because of blood type or tissue incompatibility.

In football parlance, Daphnis had reached the 2-minute warning. Little did he know that a former UM teammate would come to his rescue, donating the organ he so desperately needed.

Jermaine Chambers was a 6-foot 186-pound all-state wide receiver out of Homestead High School. When he and Daphnis met as freshmen at Miami in 1992, they bonded almost instantly. They hung out together. Ate together. Studied together. They were more family than friends, carrying on a tradition of closeness that characterizes all Hurricane football players.

“A lot of people don’t understand the depth of that closeness. We genuinely care for each other,” said Daphnis. “I didn’t understand that when I first came to the U, but I learned it fast.”

Their friendship endured long after they graduated from UM.

Then one day approximately two years ago, Chambers, along with several other Miami players from that 1992 freshman class, got a text message from Daphnis alerting them to his deteriorating health.

His message wasn’t a cry for help. It wasn’t a plea for his former teammates to get screened as potential donors. “Gerard isn’t like that,” said Chambers. “He’s never been the type of person who asks for assistance.”

But Chambers knew he couldn’t merely stand on the sideline. “Sometimes you have to get off the bench and get into the game,” he said.

So he did just that, reaching out to Daphnis’ wife, Harriett, to tell her that he intended to get screened as a donor—all the while keeping his actions secret from his old teammate.

Then came the word Chambers was waiting for: He was a match. But still, he kept the news from Daphnis, only letting him know at a holiday gathering in December, when he gave his former teammate a card that read, “I’m your guy. See you on January 10, 2019. ’Canes for life.”

That was the date of Daphnis’ surgery.

Today, he is the picture of health. He strides confidently, his handshake is firm, and his bass voice booms.

On Wednesday, in a second-floor conference hall inside the Ira Clark Diagnostic Treatment Center on the medical campus, Daphnis along with dozens of other transplant recipients celebrated their “gift of life” as part of a Miami Transplant Institute event honoring patients who had reached the one-year mark since their successful surgeries.

He said it was important for him to share the story of his journey. And what a journey it has been.

His 6-foot 3-inch muscular frame had withered. He didn’t want anyone to see him—not his family, not his friends.

“I shut it down. I withdrew. It was the lowest point in my life,” he said. “I had reached a point in my life when I was telling my family that I wouldn’t be around much longer and here’s what they needed to do.”

He developed osteomyelitis, a rare but serious infection of the bone, in his left foot. For nearly a year, he was bound to a wheelchair, trying to give the foot enough time to heal. But it wouldn’t, and eventually his left leg had to be amputated below the knee.

During this time, his wife stood by him. A former Broward County high school teacher, she had taken a leave of absence from her job to care for him.

His transplant surgery in early 2019 went flawlessly, but Daphnis would face another challenge when his body started to reject the kidney. He overcame that hurdle, and it was only recently that his doctors had given him clearance to get out and about.

“I’m not good, I’m great,” he said at Wednesday’s event.

He now takes long walks in the park with his daughters Kai-Lani, 9, and Zara, 10. He describes Chambers as his “angel” and a “true testament to the good that’s in people.”

As for Chambers, 44, he’s recovered himself, only now resuming the early-morning workouts he had grown accustomed to before the surgery.

At the event, Karina Lambertini shared the story of her 6-year-old daughter, Alessandra, who underwent a multivisceral transplant in 2014, getting a stomach, pancreas and liver. Early in her mother’s pregnancy, Alessandra, who is a twin, had developed an intestinal malrotation, an abnormality in which a baby’s intestines don’t form into a coil in the abdomen.

“Now, she’s doing great,” said Lambertini, as Alessandra and her twin sister stood close by. “She’s in kindergarten and has 24 friends. She’s a social butterfly.”

She thanked the surgeons who operated on her daughter

One of the most comprehensive transplant programs and the second largest in the nation, MTI performed more than more than 650 transplants in 2018. It is the only center in South Florida that performs all organ transplants for both adult and pediatric patients.

“A few decades or maybe a century from now, we will not have transplantation,” Dr. Rodrigo Vianna, director of the Miami Transplant Institute and chief of liver, intestinal, and multivisceral transplant, said during the event, explaining that diseases that make transplants necessary will be curable and that 3-D printed organs will make transplants obsolete.

But until then, he said, “We have to try for all of us.”