Vince Lowe is a sight. He's a big, burly biker, with a pieced septum, dozens of tattoos, a bald head and bright green fingernails.
Katy Johnson might be a seer. She's energetic, quick with a joke, irreverent and spontaneous.
From the moment Johnson saw Lowe sitting across the bar, she saw something truly special, something different from what the rest of the world saw.
"He puts off a very positive aura; it's like a beam," Johnson said. "I just wanted to know who he was."
Sure, she was intrigued by his exterior at first. She's never been a biker but she has always loved to ride and the culture that goes with it.
"I was sitting at table with my buddy, and I saw him at a table across from us, and I said, ‘I need to get my picture made with him,'" Johnson said.
Her friend Crystal Miller already knew Lowe, and encouraged Johnson to go over and get her picture, but Johnson decided that would be weird. Her thought was a little ironic given their actual introduction several months later.
"Vince, this is your new stalker," Miller told Lowe, as she introduced him to Johnson.
Since that first time Johnson had seen Lowe, she'd done the Facebook thing.
"His daily messages were so positive and uplifting. He had such a great personality that was glowing through Facebook. I told Crystal I have to meet this guy," Johnson said.
Miller kept her promise, though she made sure to make the introduction as awkward as possible.
Johnson and Lowe talked a little bit at that first meeting at a biker gathering at Stone Mountain Harley Davidson. They kept in touch after that, but little did Lowe know that Johnson's investigation had only started.
The match is made
"I was very concerned and worried I wasn't going to be a match," Johnson said.
The chances were slim after all, ranging somewhere between one in 100,000 and one in one million, depending on which expert you ask.
"Once the testing was underway, I prayed constantly, not for a match, but just that it would be God's will and if it matched, it was meant to be. It was such a slim chance to be a complete stranger and be compatible," she said.
Yet, during each of the three crucial tests, she passed. They both had O-positive blood. They both had the same six-core proteins, or human leukocyte antigens, needed for a transplant, and, finally, Lowe's blood cells did not attack Johnson's during the crossmatch test.
"I just about fell out my chair, the possibility of that happening..." Johnson said. "I cried for a while and got the shakes real bad, just out of excitement. To be able to positively affect somebody's life that way and completely change just about every aspect of somebody's life. I was very, very excited for him. To know what he has to go through on a weekly basis and to know he's such an incredible uplifting person, and inspired my life in such a way in just a short period of time. I can't explain it. I wouldn't see it any other way. It's something I have to do. Something I want to do and can't wait to do."
Perfectly matched strangers formed a bond that crossed a 17-year age gap, a gender difference and the paths of two people at different stages in life.
"It was almost like a connection right there. It's hard to explain, but it was like we had a bond at that moment," Lowe said.
"It was meant to be," Johnson said.
Lowe's mom never let him have a motorcycle, but that didn't stifle a love for the loud machines. Lowe would just go to his friend's house, hop on his dad's bike and take it for a spin.
That satiated the desire until Lowe was able to afford his first bike after getting married for the first time.
"You see a lot of guys riding on the road with radios, listening to tunes, but it's not about that for me. Getting on bike, going on a ride, hearing the bike, feeling the wind, that's what it's about. I do a lot of thinking, contemplating," Lowe said. "To me, it's therapy, what we as biker call ‘wind therapy.' If you have a problem, you get on bike, and depending on the trip, you've either eliminated the problem or don't really care about it anymore."
In January 1990, his bike betrayed him with a nasty spill that badly battered his body.
"They were doing CAT scans from head to toe because of all the injuries," he said. "Even after having the accident, the first thing I was thinking was when I would get to replace the bike I had."
However, the crash was a blessing in disguise, as the scans revealed that Lowe had polycystic kidney disease. And since it's a genetic disease, Lowe's father found out he had the disease too.
Lowe healed from his injuries and lived a normal life for the next 18 years, but his kidneys had slowly filled up to around 50 times their normal weight with cysts.
In April 2008, a cyst ruptured and his side filled with pain. He was in the hospital for four days as they flushed the excess potassium out of his system. He kidney function had dropped to 7 percent of normal. Though they managed to temporarily improve his kidney function, he went on dialysis a few months later, was placed on the transplant list in August 2009 and had both kidney removed in December 2009.
He lost 35 pounds overnight. One kidney weight 17 pounds; the other weighed 18 pounds. A normal healthy kidney weighs a third of a pound or less.
For the past four years, Lowe has been on a grueling dialysis regime. He wakes up at 4 a.m. three days a week to get to the clinic, where he then spends four hours and 45 minutes attached to the machine and another hour or so getting hooked and unhooked.
The dialysis days wipe him out, and he generally doesn't recover until the afternoon of the following day. Then the process starts again. The process is not only draining, it's also, at best, a short stop-gap: only half of dialysis patients survive more than three years. It also requires almost a full lifestyle change.
"It's hard to travel, and whenever I do get to travel, I have to plan a month in advance, because I have to have a chest X-ray and do a tuberculosis test," Lowe said. "I've also had to change my diet. Everything I love is bad for me and I have to watch what I eat, especially things with phosphorous and potassium. I've always been a big meat and potatoes guy, and potatoes are out."
At least he still gets to ride his bike.
Because you need it
When Vince got the call that he had a prospective donor, he had no clue who it could be, he recalled as he stroked his long beard on Johnson's porch last week.
"I told (my wife) Lori and we cried just about all day long. We were moved to tears just to know it was somebody we knew (even though we didn't have a name)."
Once again Crystal Miller found herself in the middle. She broke the news at her birthday in front of dozens of close friends.
"Then when I found out at Crystal's birthday party that it was somebody I'd only known for a short period of time, it blew me away," Lowe said.
"It was an emotional moment. I had many friends talk about how selfless I was, but to me it just felt the right thing to do," Johnson said.
The publicity and nonstop torrent of comments actually bothered Johnson.
"She called me and said, ‘Vince, I just don't know what to do. I'm overwhelmed,'" Johnson said. "‘This is not what I wanted...I didn't do it for this, for people to say ‘Oh Katy, you're selfless and an angel.' I did this because you need this.
"‘To me, if today you need your grass cut, that would be what I would do for you, but you need a kidney today, and that's what I want to do.'"
Lowe, wife Lori and others had to push her to share her story.
"She's finally getting the recognition," Lowe said, as Johnson rolled her eyes.
"And now he's going to have lady parts," Lowe said. "You're going to have lady parts, Vincent."
The hope is that he'll have his nice, new lady organ just in time for Christmas.