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Former Pool Rivals Become Kidney Buddies for Life

54-year-old James Harris and 42-year-old Russ Redhead first met 10 years ago through a mutual hobby: they both played pool. More specifically, they met in a pool competition where the prize was an all-paid trip to Las Vegas, which they both wanted to win. When it was time for the two men to square up, James came in with a 20-point handicap and made the most of it. Although it was a tight game, he ended up beating Russ and eliminating him from the tournament. Russ didn’t take kindly to this, and went so far as to write a scathing Facebook post about James. 

James, left, and Russ, right

“I was like, ‘who is this guy?’ I had never seen him, never heard of him before, nothing. He's a good shot, you know? Oh, was I mad at him. It’s very competitive and we’re all passionate about how we play so it can get tense. But once I started to hang around James at other pool tournaments and chit chat with him here and there, I realized he’s actually a really good guy.” - Russ

As “enemies” eventually became friends, James was privately dealing with chronic kidney disease. He had been diagnosed with the condition in his 20s but it was slow to progress through the years with no real disruption to his life. James kept the disease at bay until he got COVID-19 in December 2020 and became severely ill. His wife, Denise Epps-Harris, convinced him to go to the emergency room at the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC), where it was revealed his kidneys were functioning at critically low levels.

Doctors said it’s a good thing he came when he did, as in their assessment, he wouldn’t have survived another day at home. James was then placed on dialysis and put on the national transplant waiting list for a kidney and would undergo multiple surgeries as he waited for the call that a kidney would hopefully be donated from a deceased organ donor in time to save his life.

Meanwhile, Denise, who was James' primary caretaker, became a volunteer at Infinite Legacy, the local nonprofit organ procurement organization that saves and heals lives through organ, eye and tissue donation. Denise was doing everything she could to raise awareness about organ donation to help those waiting like James. On her own time, she was also reaching out to family and friends encouraging them to consider going through the process to see if they could be a living kidney donor for James. She even posted about his need for a kidney donation in the pool group on Facebook, and one day found herself talking with Russ at the pool hall.

“Russ had come down from Pennsylvania for a pool tournament, and we were just chatting about James, and I realized, ‘oh, I thought you knew, he needs a kidney.’ Russ didn’t know, so he started asking me all these different questions about what the requirements were to be a living donor. I thought he was just being curious, or what have you.

Then he said, ‘I'll do it.’ 

I'm like, ‘do what?’ 

‘I'll be his donor.’ 

And I just started crying, right there in the middle of the pool hall. He gave me a hug and said, ‘it's okay. It's okay.’” - Denise

Russ began the process right away to see if he was a match for James. He had a series of appointments and tests before the kidney team at UMMC determined he was indeed a match!

“I didn’t think I would be a direct match; I figured I would enter a kidney exchange program and that someone else would get my kidney and James would get a kidney from someone else. I still would have donated if that was the case, but I thought it was even better that I was a direct match…that's neat, you know?

I’ve been asked why I would do this for a pool buddy, but…I feel like it's just the right thing to do. The way I was raised is that if you put good out into the world, the world catches on and it restores a little bit of hope in other people. If the roles were reversed, I would want somebody else to step up for me. I still

believe in humanity, we just need a little push sometimes.” - Russ

After relying on dialysis treatment to keep him alive for three years and two months, James got word that he would finally receive his lifesaving kidney. The date was set for February 8, 2024.

Moments before the kidney donation and transplant, Denise explained how she was feeling.

“Before all of this happened, I didn’t know much about organ donation. I thought registering to be an organ donor was just a nice thing to do. But after being thrust into this world and seeing firsthand that it actually saves a person's life, after meeting other people who have either donated or received a second chance…it's a no-brainer. It's okay to be a donor, it really is.

Denise and James

Today is like a new season in our life. It's been a long, long road. Knowing my husband has the opportunity to live longer and for us to grow old together means the world to me. Russ is my angel, my brother. We're family now and will be forever and I can't wait to see all the blessings that will be bestowed upon him for doing something like this for us.” - Denise

As James and Russ were being prepped for surgery, James said with Russ in ear shot.

“He's a great guy to do something like that for a friend who he didn't even like in the beginning. I don't know how you thank somebody for doing something like this. I wouldn't know what to say to him. But thank you. I don't think he realizes how much it means to me to have my life back.” - James

On February 8, 2024, Russ donated his kidney to James at UMMC. The transplant was a success and both men have fully recovered. 

You too could save a life like James’. Get the facts and register to be an organ donor today at


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