Tony Chhim, a first-generation Cambodian-American, needs a kidney.
Until a few weeks ago, his family thought a yearlong search among relatives in Cambodia and in Khmer communities throughout the United States had been fruitless. Then Taylor Tagg, an American friend of Tony’s dad, Tim, surprised everyone by turning out to be a match.
The euphoria lasted until a few days ago, when doctors at the Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, New York, discovered a complication. That dashed what had been a feel-good, one-in-a-million, happy-ending kind of saga that transcended race, religion and national origin, as Tagg prepared to be the first American to donate a kidney to the son of Cambodian refugees.
Painful dialysis 3 times a week
Tony Chhim, 31, is Tim’s only son. Born in the United States, Tony is a football player and roots for the North Rockland Red Raiders football team in Thiells, New York. With only one functioning kidney, he’s in dialysis.
“It’s painful. Imagine you go [for treatment] four to five hours every other day for the rest of your life,” Tony said. “How much of that is your life?”
Now, once again, Taylor Tagg and Tim Chhim are supporting Tony during another search for a kidney match. Julie Kimbrough, senior director of marketing and communications for the National Kidney Foundation, told VOA Khmer the numbers are grim: About 19,000 people receive a transplant every year, and there are 120,000 people waiting for a kidney transplant.
“Every year there are over 4,000 people who die waiting” for help, she said.
A ‘special’ connection
Tagg and the older Chhim met in 2012 when they joined the same self-help group. A shared history of overcoming the kind of life trials that would stop many others — Tim escaped execution by the Khmer Rouge three times — grew into a friendship and a business partnership.
Neither of them cared that Tagg is a white Christian American and Chhim is an Asian Buddhist immigrant.
Tagg, a life coach who teaches forgiveness, lives in Germantown, Tennessee. The 46-year-old’s motto is: “Life gets better when you let go of the bitters.”
Chhim owns an Allstate Insurance agency in Nanuet, New York, and also is a motivational speaker.
His positive message dovetails with Tagg’s message of self-empowerment to survivors, especially refugees: “Don’t become victims forever. You were a victim, but not now. Now you are a victor.”
Tagg says they have a “special” connection.
In 2015, the two men co-wrote a book, Adversity to Advantage: 3 Epic Stories of Transforming Life’s Obstacles into Opportunity.
A hero’s gift
“We both felt through our meeting through the Napoleon Hill Foundation, then writing a book together, a higher power placed us in our paths so that we can come together for Tony’s needs to help him with his kidney,” Tagg said. “Tim is one of my living heroes, and so when the opportunity presented itself, he asked for a blood test. Those with O blood type stepped up to get tested. Of course, I did that and turned out to be a match for Tony.”
Chhim has the same feeling about Tagg: “Taylor, you are my hero, not the other way around. How many people out there are willing to give a part of their body, their organ for someone else who’s not related to you?”
Not many. But Neang Chhim, 59, Tony’s mother, understands this sacrifice. In 2010, she gave one of her kidneys to her son.
“You have to do what a mother has to do,” she said. “I checked the blood and it matched. You act quickly because you try to save your son’s life.”
Five years later, Tony’s body rejected Neang’s kidney, and that led to the tests that showed Tagg’s kidney was a match for the young man’s.
Tony says that kindness transcends any differences: “For me, it doesn’t matter if you’re non-Cambodian, black, and white. Just the fact that anybody that would step up that didn’t even know me, it really touched me. It made me happy inside knowing that there are people out there that do genuinely want to help.”
The kidney transplant surgery was scheduled for this week, but three weeks ago the medical team called it off because of complications that indicated it would not be a long-term solution to Tony’s problems.
Tony Chhim says his bond with Taylor Tagg is solid: “I still consider him my brother and he’s just as heartbroken as I am.”
Ever his father’s son, Tony vows to keep on fighting, “to find the good in the adversity.” And he hopes his story will inspire more organ donors.
“My main mission is to get people aware,” he said. “If one person besides me gets a kidney because I’m talking about it, then I’m more than happy just to stay on dialysis.”
This report originated on VOA Khmer.