By Ann Gill (M.A., ’76)
Most organ donations are anonymous, but one became quite the opposite. It was a gift not only of life but also lasting friendship. Dr. Amy Mason (B.S., ’83; D.V.M., ’92) calls donating a kidney a “remarkable experience”; Dr. Michael Coakley (B.S., ’87; DVM, ’88) also uses the term “remarkable” to describe the process whereby he received this life-saving donation.
Dr. Mason grew up in Golden, Colorado. Her goal since childhood was to be a veterinarian. After two years at Northeastern Junior College (NJC) in Sterling, she enrolled at Colorado State University as an animal science major and later was accepted into the veterinary medicine program. After graduation, she moved to Nevada with her husband, where she had a mixed animal practice. Sometime later, the couple moved to a small ranch near Guffey, Colorado. After an accident left her with traumatic brain injury, she maintained a small animal practice, later limiting the days a week she worked.
Dr. Coakley grew up in northeastern Colorado and worked in feedlots and on ranches from third grade though his undergraduate days at CSU. After receiving his D.V.M., he did a surgical internship at a hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, then worked in a practice in Los Lunas, New Mexico, followed by a practice in Raton. He later worked at the Arapahoe Park horse race track in Aurora, Colorado, then the Albuquerque Downs race track. In 1993, he purchased a retiring veterinarian’s large animal practice in Sterling and has operated the Plains Veterinary Service since then.
He was diagnosed with kidney disease in 1990; in 2018, doctors discovered bladder cancer. Removal of the tumor was followed by chemo and radiation treatments. When his kidneys quit functioning, he went on dialysis. He would work a full day after dialysis, calling it “the hardest thing I ever did.” In the fall of 2020, when he was found to be cancer-free, he was approved for the transplant list. His family members were tested, but none were approved to donate.
Enter Dr. Mason. When attending NJC, she had become friends with Linda Meisner. Her daughter lived in Meisner’s basement while she attended NJC. During a visit with Meisner in 2000, Dr. Mason learned that a Sterling veterinarian was on the list for a kidney donation. Upon hearing that and thinking the pair might have had a class together during their undergraduate days, Dr. Mason decided to call him. During that conversation, she suddenly told him, “I could give you a kidney.” Dr. Coakley recalls being “astounded” when he heard those words.
The process began in November 2020. Dr. Mason was down to working at her own clinic one day a week, so she closed it and began the process of being approved as a donor, which included many steps ̶ filling out a lengthy questionnaire, conversations with a social worker, psychological testing, blood work and, finally, more intense testing to assure the kidney was a match. As Dr. Coakley describes the process leading up to the transplant, he says: “Amy is an amazing person. She was tenacious about getting things done.”
The surgery was February 3 in Denver. During the ten days Dr. Mason was required to stay in town, her daughter would drive her to the hospital, where she and Dr. Coakley walked the hospital halls together. This was the beginning of the second gift resulting from the transplant—the two have developed a bond of friendship; she refers to him as her “kidney sibling.” His family was anxious to meet her and express their gratitude.
Dr. Coakley says he now feels better than he has felt in years and that he has “seen the hand of God with me” throughout his life and, specifically, in this process. A Kansas veterinarian, Dr. Preston Hickman, ran Dr. Coakley’s practice for 3 months during the surgery and his recovery, and a local individual provided the visiting veterinarian a furnished house during that the time. Others helped support this inspirational pair of veterinarians, including a fund raiser at Sterling Livestock Sale Barn to help with both their medical expenses.
Dr. Mason compares the experience of donating a kidney to childbirth ̶ “giving life to someone unconditionally.” She urges anyone healthy enough to do so to consider it. This extraordinary, heartwarming story of two CSU alumni elevates the phrase “Rams helping Rams” to a whole new level.