For one Atlanta-area toddler and his family, “Happy New Year” is an understatement.
Two-year-old A.J. Burgess spent a quiet, but spirited, Christmas Day with his mother, Carmellia Burgess, and sisters Zi’Yonna, 7, Za’Karreah, 5, and Kimora, 1, at their home in Snellville, Georgia. In the midst of opening presents and enjoying a holiday dinner, they reflected on his Thanksgiving miracle turned Christmas gift of life.
“It [was] his first Christmas with a kidney,” said Burgess of her son, who maintained his wide smile and sunny disposition even amid the worst of his health challenges. “We’ve wanted that so long, there really isn’t anything else to ask for.”
“Baby A.J.” was born prematurely without working kidneys, kicking off a prolonged medical crisis that would include countless hospital stays and, eventually, nightly dialysis treatments to survive. His father, Anthony Dickerson, was found to be a perfect match and volunteered to donate his left kidney. But Emory University Hospital canceled the transplant surgery, which had been scheduled for Oct. 3, after Dickerson was arrested for allegedly violating his parole by possessing a firearm while fleeing police.
Family attorney Mawuli Davis said Emory Hospital officials had written jail officials asking that Dickerson be released on bond. But he said they stopped proceeding on the day of the surgery, “stating that they delayed the transplant to January 2018, because they would require proof from [Dickerson’s] parole officer that he had complied with parole for three months.”
Hospital officials later said in a statement that they needed to be sure Dickerson would adhere to the strict aftercare requirements for living donors. But Burgess said A.J. might not have made it that long.
“I don’t understand what his dad getting arrested had to do with giving my son the kidney he needed to live,” she said. “There was a kidney right there, and [the hospital was] giving us the runaround. I felt like they were just gambling with my son’s life.”
Members of the community, religious and civic leaders and some Emory University theology students responded to the hospital’s decision by picketing and hosting prayer vigils.
“Emory’s denial of Baby A.J.’s kidney transplant was not only cruel and inhumane, but it was unethical and [contrary] to the very reason the hospital exists: You do no harm and render aid to the sick. This baby’s life hung in the balance while this institution marched in place,” said Derrick Boazman, an Atlanta talk radio host and community activist who led protests and joined in meetings with hospital administrators on Baby A.J.’s behalf.
As the outcry for Baby A.J.’s surgery to move forward mounted, Davis, fellow family attorney Harold Spence and community activists met with hospital administrators, hoping to inspire a change of heart.
Their prayers were answered the Tuesday before Thanksgiving — but not how they expected. Burgess said Emory Healthcare called around 8:30 p.m. to say that a deceased organ donor was a match for little A.J. The family rushed to the hospital to complete blood work and to get him prepped for surgery.
“I was in shock about this unbelievable blessing,” recalled Burgess. “I was so excited I could not think straight. I was putting dirty clothes in my bag. I didn’t put any outfits together. My mom ended up packing his bag for me. It was just crazy.”
The successful nearly three-hour surgery took place on Thanksgiving Eve, and the next day the family celebrated the holiday, and his new kidney, together at the hospital.
Davis said A.J.’s victory was also a win for the community.
“To know that Baby A.J. has been given the gift of life gives us hope as a community as 2017 comes to an end,” said Davis. “So many people stood up for him and his family, so many prayers were answered. It renews your faith in humanity.”
Burgess said A.J. has been doing great overall and the kidney has been functioning well. He has been battling some bladder pain that they hope won’t have to be addressed with surgery. She said that hasn’t stopped A.J. from smiling and being the fun-loving kid he’s always been. He’s also been enjoying “potty training” for the first time.
“All of Atlanta can be grateful that A.J. was the successful recipient of a kidney transplant,” Emory University Hospital spokeswoman Holly Korschun said in a statement. “Over the past few weeks, many in our community have rallied to A.J.’s cause. His parents were passionate and courageous advocates, and they showed all of us the true meaning of unconditional love.”
Burgess said she’s all out of wishes for a while, especially since filmmaker Tyler Perry heard that the vehicle she’d used to transport her children had been totaled in a crash and he replaced it with a new Honda Pilot SUV. She’d picked it up from the dealership just hours before the kidney donor call came in.
A.J. and his family have a lot to look forward to in 2018, including a meet-and-greet to “thank the community” planned for next month, which will also double as a third birthday celebration for A.J.
Burgess said she’s still processing her son’s whirlwind experience. “Somebody died so my son could live,” she said. “There’s no other way to describe how I feel — just blessed.”