Wading through uncertainty

UHS teacher suffering from kidney failure needs a transplant

By: Joshua Gordon | Woodward Talk | Published April 29, 2015


FERNDALE — When Jovaughn Wilson heads into University High School in Ferndale each day to teach geometry to his 10th-grade students, he is a little more fatigued than he was a year ago, but otherwise Wilson is as passionate about his job as ever.

It was the way Wilson conducted himself — the exact same way he had every day of his five years at UHS — that made his recent reveal to the school that much more impactful.

Wilson, 33, has kidney failure, with his kidneys only functioning at 7 percent, and he is in need of a transplant to save his life. However, Wilson has blood type O, and it could take five years before he gets a kidney off the donor’s list.

“I didn’t have any issues. I was just going in last November for a regular check-up, a physical, and at that point they took blood and I gave them urine, and they suspected my kidneys were not functioning at a normal level,” Wilson said. “A kidney biopsy confirmed my kidneys were not working at a normal level. They want you to be below a 20 percent working level to put you on the list, and mine are at a 7 percent working level.”

Initially, Wilson said he got down because he took the diagnosis as a death sentence. But after some counseling from the doctors, he realized that once he got a transplant he would be fine.

However, with his blood type, Wilson doesn’t know when that is going to happen, and it makes every day until then a little harder.

“It came out of nowhere because I have never had any health issues, and so it was a terrible shock,” he said. “It is pretty much a waiting game. They have me going in every two weeks to give blood and check my levels, but there are really no side effects. I could be at work and pass out because my kidneys stop functioning. It could be six months or a year or more — there is no way to determine that.”

A little help from a friend

Because there is no course of action but to wait, Wilson didn’t let that many people around him in on his problems.

For the past few years, Wilson has played recreation league basketball in Shelby Township with Ron Reiss, a 39-year-old Macomb Township resident. The team won a pair of championships, but it wasn’t a surprise to Reiss, as Wilson is also the boys varsity basketball coach at UHS.

So when Wilson started to not look like the best player on the court that Reiss knew he was, or stopped showing up at all, Reiss knew something had to be up.

“I would watch Jovaughn play and he did not seem right, not himself, as if he couldn’t run or jump as high,” Reiss said. “Then, a few months ago, I asked around and found out he was sick, and I just knew it was serious. I started digging around and saw a photo on Facebook from January of him sitting in the hospital bed, and it said he had kidney failure. I was astonished.”

Checking around, Reiss said he was equally amazed that no one in Wilson’s life had stepped up to do something, whether it be raising money or just getting the word out about him needing a transplant.

While Reiss and Wilson’s friendship usually extended only from the court to the locker room, Reiss said he knew Wilson was the type of guy who wouldn’t voluntarily put his story out there and ask for help.

So Reiss did it himself, setting up a GoFundMe page to raise money and make people aware of Wilson’s circumstances.

“He is such a quiet guy that he wouldn’t ever ask for help, and I believe if it meant broadcasting and asking for help or just dying, he would do the latter,” Reiss said. “He doesn’t want attention. He does not ask for sympathy, but I rounded up the troops and kept pushing it on Facebook and getting (kidney) donation forms out there.”

Through the process of setting up donations and getting the word out there, Reiss hasn’t relied on Wilson to do much of the heavy lifting, taking it upon himself to lead the crusade. Even so, Wilson said that when Reiss approached him about helping, combined with the support others have shown, it was more than he expected.

“After the (basketball) games we would talk about some things, but nothing serious, like what we were doing for the day,” Wilson said. “We developed a bond, but I never would have imagined it would be a strong enough bond that he would go out of his way to do all the things he is doing for me right now. It is very overwhelming with the word being put out and all the love and support that is shown.”

Reiss knows that raising funds through GoFundMe isn’t going to help Wilson’s medical issues, but he wants the funds to help with any medical expenses, and if the worst-case scenario arrives, to take care of Wilson’s family.

The relationship between Reiss and Wilson may not have extended past the gym in Shelby Township before, but Reiss said that is where he discovered that Wilson was worth the extra effort.

“Social classes get created on the basketball court where the really good people have a certain level of arrogance and the bad players get picked last,” Reiss said. “I am not a very good basketball player; I’m a role player, but Jovaughn was never like that. He was respectful and passed me the ball, and he was also a smart star who took most of the shots and, frankly, I gave him most of those shots. But he never treated me disrespectfully.”

Staying the course

When Wilson got his diagnosis in November of last year, UHS School Leader Katie Jeffrey said he made administration aware, but didn’t make his case known to the whole school.

Despite the extreme circumstances, Jeffrey said she wasn’t surprised to see Wilson show up every day and go about his business as usual.

“Jovaughn has always been a very calm, centered person, and his presence in the classroom is one of being very committed to the kids,” she said. “He has a very calm classroom where questions are welcome and (the students) know they can talk to him. He is a great role model for the students and athletes, and he is an important part of our school.”

Wilson said he has taken more time off this year in order to go to his more frequent doctor’s visits than he has in his previous 10 years of teaching.

But no matter his situation, he said he wants to continue to do what he loves, which includes teaching and coaching. The basketball season ran until the end of March, but  Wilson was still walking the sidelines.

And it includes spending time with his 4-year-old son.

“My son just turned 4 in April, and I am a very important and vital part of his life; he really looks up to me, and we always enjoy the time we spend together,” Wilson said. “If I have to go on dialysis, the worst part about it would be that it brings a great amount of fatigue being on the machines, and that would take away from the different things we do, as he is very active. He runs around the house and we play with his toys, and I read to him and teach him different things. Me being fatigued would really hurt his development.”

The uncertainty of his situation means Wilson doesn’t know when he may find a donor, or when his kidneys could give out. But doing the things he loves — teaching, coaching, being a father — is all he knows.

“Not knowing is the absolute worst about it,” he said. “I try to stay busy through working and being with my son and, honestly, I try not to think about it because if you really start to worry you get down, and I could start wondering why me or get depressed. So I try not to think about it.”

To donate to Wilson’s fundraiser, or to learn more about his situation, visit www.gofundme.com/r3hym4.