Former W&J football teammates ‘pay it forward’ in UAB kidney chain

In April 2017, Jay Ernst ’05 and his wife were preparing for the birth of their second child.

Unfortunately, this happy news had complications. Their son was diagnosed with gastroschisis, a birth defect of the abdominal wall in which the intestines are found outside of the baby’s body. While dealing with his unborn son’s health concerns, Ernst had to face one of his own: the day before his son was born, he learned that he would need a kidney transplant.

After becoming a father again, Ernst chose to focus on his family and didn’t even ask for a donor to come forward until 53 days later, when his son was discharged from the hospital to go home.

“Prior to the kidney transplant, I had extreme exhaustion,” Ernst said. “I was sleeping 12 to 16 hours a day, not having any energy to hang out with my son after work, and I couldn’t work full days. I had this weird taste of pennies in my mouth all the time. My body felt like I had a thousand ants on me all the time. In the month of June, there were times I didn’t even know if I was going to wake up.”

Wanting to be able to devote more time to his wife and children, Ernst reached out to his friends and family on Facebook and was overwhelmed by the response of his loved ones volunteering to come forward to see if they were a potential match. One of those who volunteered was Ernst’s former W&J football teammate, Zach Taylor, a resident of Oregon.

“Twenty people offered, but Zach was adamant. He said he’d come down, get tested and if he wasn’t a match, still wanted to find a way to help,” Ernst said.

For Taylor, aiding his friend and former teammate was never a question. The two bonded during Taylor’s freshmen year at W&J and have stayed close since.

“Jay was always the guy who would do anything for you. He’d give you the shirt off his back. He might make fun of you and tease you, but at the end of the day he was a great guy,” Taylor said. “Two friends of mine…did a kidney exchange, and that inspired me. I always told myself if I had the opportunity to help a friend I would do it, no questions asked, because there’s so many people out there who need a kidney donor. The opportunity presented itself with Jay. He’s married and has two kids, so I wanted to do this not only for him, but for his family.”

Taylor traveled from Oregon to Alabama to undergo physical tests to determine if he could donate to Ernst, but discovered they had different blood types.

Though Taylor ultimately was not a match with Ernst, the two were able to participate in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s kidney chain, a chain of transplants that matches those in need of the organ with compatible donors. Taylor agreed to donate a kidney on Ernst’s behalf. His donation went to another patient in need, while Ernst received a kidney from Tyler Williamson, a benevolent stranger on the donor list.

“At the end of the day, my goal was to help Jay, and in the process, I was able to help more than just Jay and Jay’s family, which was an amazing experience,” Taylor said.

The transplant in mid-October was a success, and Ernst has been doing well since. He’s been able to return to work and be more active again in his family life – and especially in his new role as a father of two.

“Before, my wife was having to take care of our two kids and do all the work by herself,” Ernst said. “Now, I’m able to help out more. I was able to go trick or treating with my kids. That means everything to me.”