Donation from Ravens' Cass gives an old friend gift of life

June 18, 2006|By PETER SCHMUCK

After a week when the Ravens welcomed a new hero to their offensive lineup, perhaps this would be a good time to examine the true nature of heroism.

Newly acquired quarterback Steve McNair may well lead them to glory, but there is a slight, bookish guy in the Ravens' front office who recently delivered a lesson in real courage - and it never occurred to him to spike the ball in the end zone.

Ravens president Dick Cass has been looking a little gimpy lately. He had to be driven to work for a few weeks and he has a rather prominent scar on his abdomen, even though he is - and has been - in perfect health.

Six weeks ago, he popped his head into a few offices at the Ravens' training facility in Owings Mills and told his co-workers that he would be in Boston for a few days to undergo a medical procedure. Nothing serious. No big deal.

Except that it was serious and it was a big deal and there's a guy up in Massachusetts with a much brighter, much longer future because Cass gave him a gift that will keep on giving.

It was an old law school friend who needed a kidney, and now you can pause and take a sip of your coffee and try to imagine what you would do in the same situation. We all would like to think we would do the same thing, but I'm not so sure.

"It wasn't his brother," said Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti. "It was a friend. You have to ask yourself, how good a friend would it have to be to give up a kidney?"

Good question. While a lot of people would love to make good on Shakespeare's sarcastic remedy for society's ills - "kill all the lawyers" - Cass decided to save one.

He seems almost sheepish talking about it. His friend (whose privacy he has also chosen to protect) has a history of serious kidney problems and underwent a transplant 10 years ago. That kidney failed recently and Cass heard through a mutual friend that he might be able to help.

"I didn't know anything about kidney transplants," he said Wednesday. "I did some reading and found it wasn't that big a deal. The surgery isn't fun, but other than that, you don't need two kidneys."

Well, you might someday, which along with the five-hour transplant operation makes it seem like it might actually be a big deal, but the surgery has become fairly routine and Cass said he has been assured the probability of his remaining healthy kidney going south is extremely low.

"The two risks of a kidney transplant are the risk of the surgery - and it is major surgery - and the risk that you will wake up someday and wish you had a second kidney," Cass said. "That risk is very low. I'm not playing football anymore and I don't get into street fights.

"In exchange, my friend is able to lead a normal life. ... The wait list for a cadaver transplant in the Boston area is over four years. After talking to my wife, it wasn't that hard of a decision."

Of course, he is again being too modest. It is such a big decision that donors are required to have psychological counseling to make sure they know all the implications. There have been great advances in surgical technique and technology that have made live-donor kidney transplants less invasive and less risky, but transplant surgeon Dr. Matthew Cooper of the University of Maryland Medical Center - who does this kind of thing every day - said it is, indeed, a major personal sacrifice.

"I tell all the families that come in here, these are the closest things to heroes on this earth that you are going to meet," Cooper said. "They are individuals who decide to go through an operation for someone else that is to no benefit of their own. If we didn't have individuals like Mr. Cass, we'd have too many people dying of renal failure."

The procedure was performed at Massachusetts General Hospital, but it could just as easily have been done in Baltimore, where both Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland Medical Center have world-class transplant centers.

"He was up there," Cass explained, "so it was a home game for him."

Cass is an interesting guy. He's so good at his job that he was mentioned as one of the leading candidates to become NFL commissioner after Paul Tagliabue announced his pending retirement, but he quickly took his name out of consideration. He's so low-key that you might mistake him for one of the staff bean counters if you didn't already know that he is one of the most respected executives in professional sports.

He has been reluctant to talk publicly about the transplant, partly because he wanted to make sure the surgery was a complete success (it was) and partly because he isn't looking for publicity, but his experience belies a common misconception about kidney donation.

"Living donor kidney transplants are not as rare as they used to be," Cass said. "It used to be that it almost had to be a brother. Now, if you have the same blood type, you can donate a kidney."

Bisciotti was the one member of the Ravens organization Cass confided in throughout the process.

"He told me a little ways into it," Bisciotti said. "I think it takes people by surprise. It's something you don't hear very often. I know it sounds shallow to say it this way, but we're incredibly impressed by it. How could you not be?

"The nicest thing you can say about a man is, his reputation precedes him, and with Dick, his reputation precedes him. If anybody I knew would do something like that, it's Dick Cass. It's a testament to the kind of person that he is." peter.schmuck@baltsun.com.

"The Peter Schmuck Show" airs on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays.

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