FIVE-YEAR-OLD MEAGAN LEAMER pretends not to hear her father as he pleases and pretty-pleases her for just one slice of the fruit she's having after lunch. Leaning close in the kitchen of the Leamers' North East, Pa., home, outside Erie, her mother, Genie, coaxes, "C'mon, give Daddy an orange. He gave you a kidney." To Randy, 32, a mill worker, and Genie, 31, a homemaker, Meagan's hearty appetite is cause for celebration, not consternation. It wasn't so long ago that she had no appetite, her energy sapped by a serious kidney disease doctors had diagnosed when she was 1½ years old. They told the Leamers dialysis would help, but that Meagan would need a kidney transplant or the disease eventually could kill her. "I couldn't let that happen to her," says Randy, who bears a 10-inch scar, from where the doctors removed the kidney that saved Meagan's life.
More than an act of fatherly love, Randy's gift also was an exercise in supreme willpower. Doctors at Ohio's Cleveland Clinic determined that the 5'7" Randy—who had ballooned over the years to 300 lbs. on a diet of soft drinks, chocolate milk, fried food and anything drenched in butter—was too heavy to be a donor. Doctors told him he must first drop 100 lbs. Cutting through so much fat, they told him, could cause pneumonia or blood clots—even damage the kidney they were trying to harvest. "I was determined," says Randy, now a relatively svelte 197 lbs. "It was a tough time. But I kept thinking of Meagan."
The youngest of the Leamers' three daughters (Courtney is 11 and Randi 8), Meagan began exhibiting health problems at 16 months, when she suffered a nasty case of strep throat. In the months that followed, she grew puffy, lethargic and increasingly susceptible to childhood illnesses of all kinds. In 1994 doctors at the Cleveland Clinic, a two-hour drive from North East, diagnosed focal segmental glomerular sclerosis, a degenerative kidney disease. Doctors don't know what causes the disease. But they did know that Meagan needed a transplant. Randy and Genie immediately volunteered, and tests found that both would be suitable donors. Genie was willing, but Randy decided it would be he who would undergo the transplant surgery because her family had a history of high blood pressure, diabetes and kidney disease. "My mother died when she was on dialysis," Genie says. "I could not bear to lose my daughter that way."
Randy vowed he would shed the weight—no easy task for a man who had been obese most of his life. When he and Genie began dating in high school in rural South Ripley, Pa., he already topped 200 lbs. Helping out on his family's dairy farm kept his weight in check for a time. But in 1984, a year after graduating from Sherman Central High School and landing a job at RUR Industries, a nearby steel-fabricating plant, Randy broke a leg in a motorcycle accident. He was laid up for six months, and Genie quit school to care for him. Randy did almost nothing but eat. "My clothes," Randy says, "got bigger and bigger."
Even when he returned to work, Randy remained a couch potato at home, settling snugly into his recliner to watch TV and snack—a pattern that continued until he and Genie, who had married in 1987, learned of Meagan's need for a kidney. Just before Christmas 1996, doctors inserted a catheter into the little girl's abdomen, and Genie was trained to perform dialysis at home while Meagan slept among her stuffed animals.
After savoring a last holiday feast, Randy—who could barely button his size-44 jeans—brought to the New Year a near-religious devotion to his dietary mission. Randy still loved Genie's fried chicken, even after she started using vegetable spray rather than oil. "I cooked the same things, only I prepared them differently," says Genie. In fact on days when Randy refused to eat anything but fruit, she found herself begging him to eat more. "I was worried that he would get sick," she explains, "and then what?"
Randy got a boost from friends and coworkers. "It helped when people started noticing 1 was losing weight," he says. "Guys at work brought in old jeans so I didn't have to keep buying new sizes." It also helped that he began walking, quickly working his way up to 2½ miles a night as neighbors cheered him. By July, Randy weighed 220. Doctors scheduled the transplant operation for November—a date that was pushed back to Dec. 12 after Meagan came down with a sinus infection.
On that day, Meagan's kidney donor weighed 194 lbs. Father and daughter rode to the operating room on the same gurney before being separated inside. As soon as Randy woke from the anesthetic, he tried to sit up. "He was looking for Meagan, to see how she was doing," says Genie. Dr. Andrew Novick, head of the hospital's kidney transplant program, describes the operations as successful. Meagan, he says, is expected to lead a healthy life. Randy, too, is healing nicely. He returned to work on Feb. 2. "It's no easy thing Randy did," Novick says. "I can't imagine having to lose 100 lbs. in seven or eight months. This is all so gratifying. It makes all the waiting worthwhile."
Inspired by the experience, Genie plans to volunteer at the Cleveland Clinic and a local kidney organization to encourage others to become donors. "Organs are precious gifts given to you by God," she says. "You can't take them with you. There are so many lives to be saved." And Randy, now a size 34, says he has excellent incentive to maintain his current weight. "My daughters can hug me now," he says proudly. "They can put their arms around me."
ELLEN MAZO in North East
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