The 40-person balloon release Thursday was to honor Mann, a physical elementary teacher at the school, and to give him a proper send-off for his trip to Atlanta Friday to receive a kidney replacement. The “one-in-a-million” donor is Mt. Zion Elementary teaching assistant and 12-year friend of Mann’s, Felicia Henderson, who let a silver balloon go right by his side.
Mann was diagnosed in 2009 with scleroderma, a rare autoimmune disorder that affects about 300,000 people in the United States. The most visible symptom is a hardening of the skin, but the disease can also affect the blood vessels, muscles and internal organs. This is what happened to Mann.
“I’ve lived without kidneys for three years,” Mann said Thursday. “After a lot of trying to find a donor, we finally found one in Felicia. It’s unbelievable. She is such a kind person, and the doctors are amazed — they said finding the right donor so close to me was a one-in-a-million shot. So it’s all God, I know that.”
Mann, a former basketball coach for West Georgia Technical College, was brought out into the cold Thursday and greeted by hundreds of Mt. Zion students, teachers and administrators. He stood in the middle of a huge circle of students with other teachers and listened to several past students and Principal Tracey Barrow speak on Mann’s impact on their lives.
Students gave cards of encouragement and donations of money to Mann and Henderson.
The first symptoms Mann noticed were swelling in his hands and shortness of breath several years ago — ever since then, despite all the trips to the doctor and the dialysis treatments, he hasn’t missed a substantial amount of work. Since his diagnosis, Mann has gone to six-hour sessions of dialysis treatments three times a week after school. He worked every day up to the day before his surgery, when the balloons were let go.
The four-hour surgery, planned to begin early Friday morning, was to be done at Emory University Hospital. The operation and transplant, while it won’t cure the disease, should give Mann more energy and freedom to live — and extend his time to live.
“I used to be real active, running a mile-and-a-half every other day,” Mann said. “I obviously haven’t been able to continue that. So I’m hoping I can get back closer to where I used to be.”
The pair’s doctors have told them they should recover from the surgery in time for Thanksgiving. They both hope to back at work at Mt. Zion Elementary after the holiday break.
Mann first searched for a donor the traditional way — asking family members to go through the battery of tests to see if they were positive matches. Several were, but other hurdles made their applications fall through — one family member was disqualified because of a kidney stone several years ago, even though he shared the same blood type.
Then, Mann turned to Facebook, where he posted a “one-liner,” as Henderson called it asking for a donor. “I figured I’d go a different route,” Mann said.
“Still advertising for a kidney,” Mann said he wrote.
Henderson, who said she is “honored” to give one of her kidneys to the man who has coached her children, asked all the students and teachers to wear small green ribbons — the official symbol of organ donation. Mann asked everyone to wear orange and blue, for his favorite team, the Auburn Tigers.
Further proof, Mann said, that a higher power was involved, was a story he shared about his mother’s daily devotional she read on the day Henderson went to Emory to be tested to see if she was a match.
“May the Lord bless you from Mount Zion; may you enjoy the blessings of Jerusalem all your life,” the passage in Psalms reads. Mann said he knows it wasn’t a coincidence that his mother read that devotional, one she didn’t normally read, on that important day.
“That is definitely a God thing,” he said.
Mann said he is obviously appreciative of the sacrifice Henderson has made and is making — as far he’s concerned, she’s saving his life.
“She’s not related by blood, but she’s still family to me,” he said.