Ed Farmer, voice of the Chicago White Sox, opens up about the kidney transplant that saved his life
BY ANDY FRYE Special Columnist
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Ed Farmer has been a voice of the Chicago White Sox for more than two decades now. He's currently sharing the radio booth for a 12th season with Darrin Jackson, also a former Major League ball player. Roaring into the 2012 season on the way back from spring training in Arizona, Farmer has a lot to say about gifts.
He talks about growing up on Chicago's South Side as a lifelong Sox fan and later getting the chance to play for his beloved team from 1979 to 1981. He talks about his gifts as a right-handed pitcher and winning games as a closer. However, something even bigger than baseball comes to mind.
"My brother gave me the gift of life, and that's the biggest gift anyone could give," Farmer said.
Just more than 20 years ago, Farmer received a kidney transplant from his brother, Tom. Farmer needed a transplant because of polycystic kidney disease, a hereditary condition that can cause one's kidneys to fail in adulthood.
Kidneys are perhaps one of those body parts most Americans don't think about too much. We are born with two, and these organs clean the blood and remove the toxins from our bodies in as little as four minutes. Yet, when kidneys fail, they tend to fail in tandem. Farmer said that polycystic kidney disease is the number one genetically passed disease in the world.
I've been a sports fan all my life, and as with most fans, baseball is a cornerstone of that. But I got to know more about Farmer not because of my usual baseball research, but rather because I recently became a kidney donor myself.
For adults who experience kidney failure, an organ transplant is inevitable in order to get back to a normal lifestyle. Farmer said symptoms came in his early 30s, but the disease didn't manifest until much later.
"Heading into the 1980 All-Star Game, my back hurt," Farmer said, "and had some blood in my urine, along with other pain."
He later found out his blood pressure pressure was off the charts. He knew he had some predisposition to the disease but thought it was stress on the body of pitching at the game's top level.
Farmer went on in 1980 to set White Sox baseball's club record for a relief pitcher, with 30 saves. He had his best years with the Sox, and later ended an 11-year career in 1983 to go onto become a scout a few years later with the Baltimore Orioles and the California Angels.
"While scouting with the Angels, I loved the job but noticed by mid-season 1990 I wasn't feeling good. I remember one trip traveling from Pittsburgh to Toronto to Seattle in just a few days, thinking the travel was taking its toll."
But it wasn't the travel. His polycystic kidneys were failing, and Farmer would need to go on dialysis for the latter half of 1990 until just after New Year. That's when his brother stepped up to be tested to see if they were a match.
Fortunately, Tom was a match, by tissue and blood type, so the two completed the transplant surgery at Harvard Medical in early 1991. Shortly after his recovery from surgery, Tom went back to a normal, healthy lifestyle and Farmer took on the new task of doing live game radio for the White Sox.
Since the transplant, Farmer has spoken before Congress and crowds at Harvard Medical School about his experience, the need for research and most of all the importance of being an organ donor. Currently, Farmer is a spokesperson for Donate Life Illinois, a program run by his friend and former Cubs player, Secretary of State Jesse White. Donate Life has five million Illinoisans registered as potential donors, doing so by signing the back of a driver's license or registering online.
Aside from doing public service announcements for Donate Life, Farmer continues to speak publicly about related health issues.
Farmer asked about my choice to become a donor to my friend Jeffrey, who is a husband, a father to two grown boys and IHSA high school football referee. I told Farmer I was just helping a friend, and after being tested, I found out I was a match. I was honored that Farmer said to me: "That's a wonderful thing you've done for your friend."
Of course, I couldn't keep sports fandom out of the mix. At one point, I mentioned that Jeffrey and I were a match in another way. We're both Cubs fans.
"That's OK," Farmer said with a slight laugh. "Someone has to root for the Cubs, too."