Tommy Allen believed he was going to die.
He expected it, was ready for it, made peace with it.
Despite a lifetime of disciplined exercise, including earning a Tae Kwon Do black belt in three years followed by 20 years teaching martial arts, a rare hereditary kidney disorder that he shared with a sister had finally caught up with him when he reached his 40s.
“The doctor told me that both of my kidneys had failed,” he said. “It’s really devastating to hear news like that. I figured if I died, so what. I’m alone. By then I’d decided I’m a single person, I’d lived a good life.”
But a remark to a co-worker he was coaching to keep fit, and the eventual meeting of the woman who would become his wife, changed his mind, his outlook and his fate.
Today, 13 years after the gift of a kidney, Allen is an Operations & Maintenance IV supervisor at the 2,250-megawatt Navajo Generating Station in LeChee where he’s worked for 22 years.
In September, he was promoted to his current job as a top-level NGS maintenance supervisor. He began with Salt River Project 37 years ago as a trades helper.
The trim, athletic Allen regularly puts in 12-hour shifts, walks six or seven miles a day and has not used an elevator at work in more than 11 years. For fun, he climbs mountains with his family.
“I believe I am healthier today, even with my illnesses, my setbacks, with the prescription I’m on, than I was when I was in my early 40s when I still could run a six-and-a-half-minute mile, when I could run across the Grand Canyon,” he said. “Back then I was in good shape, but I was not eating right all the time.”
Allen met his Salt River Project colleague Mikki Gaines more than 25 years ago when they both worked at the Coronado Generating Station in St. Johns, Arizona. He transferred to NGS in 1991 and Gaines arrived there in 1994.
In the spring of 2000, Allen pushed Gaines to work harder as they jogged one day. That’s when he dropped a bomb.
“Mikki, you need to step up a little bit more,” he told her. “You need to run faster. You need to eat right. I’m not going to be around any longer.”
Gaines stopped and asked, “What are you telling me?”
“I told her I’m dying,” Allen said. “I told her I’ve been diagnosed. I’ve got about three months to live.”
Without hesitation, Gaines offered to donate a kidney. Although Allen wasn’t quite ready to accept the kindness, he now marvels that a non-Navajo woman would make such a selfless gesture for him.
Gaines, now a foreman with the SRP Underground Fault department in Phoenix, said she did not consider her offer that extraordinary because she had been through her own surgeries.
“I was a cancer survivor, she said. “I thought, well, maybe they won’t take my kidney. But I was thrilled to find out that they would.” she said.
She remains humble about her generosity.
“People get this idea that there’s some kind of a lifelong debt that you owe someone,” Gaines said. “That’s not the case at all. I just want him to live a happy, healthy, normal life.”
Soon after their discussion, Allen met his wife-to-be, Lorraine. He now had every reason to live. Gaines turned out to be a compatible donor match, so in June 2000 he had his kidney transplant operation.
It was not smooth sailing from there, however. As his doctor predicted, two years later he developed diabetes as a side effect of his anti-rejection medication.
“That was tough to deal with,” Allen said. “I had a hard time dealing with my diabetes. I had overcome one illness and now was looking head-on into another one.”
Allen approached his new problem the way he’s dealt with other challenges – methodically, by becoming a model patient.
“Since I got diabetes I have really made some major changes in my life,” he said. “Eating right is number one. By eating right I mean that you’ve got to count sugar content. If it says four grams, it means there’s one teaspoon of sugar in it. A can of soda can have 10 teaspoons in it.”
He weighs himself daily. He checks his blood levels several times a day. He says attitude is everything; be positive, never feel sorry for yourself, eliminate the word “can’t” from your vocabulary.
Next, he says, is exercise with a standard 10,000 steps a day. He burns out pedometers he wears on his boot tops.
His family, too, has adopted a healthy regime of eating and exercise. This year he, Lorraine and their 6-year-old daughter Tai climbed all four sacred mountains to the Navajo people.
NGS Maintenance Manager Shayne Jones, Allen’s boss, says this systematic, goal-oriented approach is Allen’s style of problem solving.
“One of the things that Tommy has always presented is the desire to not be satisfied with the status quo, to try to push things to the next level, to try to do things with his crew that other crews couldn’t do,” Jones said.
As a child, Allen went to live with his aunt and uncle in Rocky Ridge when his mother became ill. He stayed and attended boarding school there and in Tuba City.
Like countless others, he was raised traditionally in a dirt-floored hogan, tended sheep and cattle, spoke only Navajo and moved with the seasons.
When he returned to his family in Richfield, Utah, he would see a big house with a white fence and decided that someday he, too, wanted a home with running water and electricity.
He realized then, he said, that effort and education was the way to make such dreams come true.
Allen says he is grateful to the woman who donated a kidney so he could live and to a job that provided him with a life he imagined as a boy.
“But my dream’s not done because I believe that I’ve still got a lot of living to do yet and there’s a lot of mountains out there. It’s going to take a lot of years to climb them,” he said. “We’ve already talked about what we’re going to do. We’re going to climb mountains.”