Matt Shields' Gift to Father and Sons

Oct 16, 2018

A popular high school teacher from Charlottesville is recovering after surgery at the University of Virginia Medical Center.  43-year-old Matt Shields was perfectly healthy, but he agreed to an operation to save his father’s life. 

Matt Shields (right) with his father, Bob (left) and sons.
Credit Sarah Cramer Shields

Matt Shields teaches physics and engineering at Charlottesville High School, and he advises an after-school club with more than 80 members called BACON – an acronym for Best All-Around Club of Nerds.  In November they’ll be off to Wallops Island to watch as a rocket carries the tiny satellites they designed into space.  By then, Shields hopes to be well enough to travel after major surgery to remove one of his kidneys.

“You go to the hospital, pee in a jar, and they check your kidney function," Shields says. "That’s the first test, and it turns out I have great kidney function.”

He was also eligible to donate a kidney to his father.

“I’ve been meaning to tell this to him to his face, but I guess telling it to a radio microphone is an okay way to do it," he says. "He’s been my hero my whole life.  I’ve always wanted to live up to his example. I still think of him as the strongest, smartest, most loving guy I know, and so I would love to be able to give back to him.”

Bob Shields, who is 75, suffers from high blood pressure that, over time, damaged his kidneys.

“It doesn’t get better.  The liver can regenerate itself.  The kidneys cannot, so my numbers just continued to slide," he recalls. "I guess three years, maybe almost four now in order to try and slow the progression I became as vegetarian.  I grew up in Texas.  I’ve been barbecuing since I was six years old, and all of a sudden I’m not eating meat.  It was a real challenge.”

His wife learned to cook delicious vegetarian meals.  He wasn’t a good candidate for dialysis, and as months passed his family began thinking about live donation.  People can live healthy lives with only one kidney, so both of his sons and their wives were checked.

“I’ve even had a couple of golf buddies say they would go get tested,” Bob Shields adds. 

Matt turned out to be an excellent match, but Bob was hesitant.

“I was reluctant to have one of my sons do this – especially Matt," Bob admits.  "He’s younger.  He’s got young kids, and I didn’t want to do that.  One of the doctors sat me down one day.  He said, ‘Look, you should think about something.  If they want to, you are depriving them of the opportunity to help their father.’  So I said, ‘Gee, I hadn’t thought about it that way.’”

Bob Shields served for many years in the military.  He knew what it meant to be a hero.

“I spent two years in Vietnam, and I saw plenty of heroic acts there – young fellas who just put their lives on the line for their friends, and this is an extension of that in a way. It’s a very heroic act of love, because it’s a big deal, and I get teary every time I think about it, because it’s a gift – an honest-to-God gift that he’s going to give a kidney.”

But Matt Shields claims it’s a selfish act.  He wants his dad around for many more years.

“They say it’s pretty neat, because you’ve got this kidney that’s 30 years younger than you are pumping away, doing its job, and all of a sudden you feel great, so I’m looking forward to seeing him bounce back.”

He has two sons of his own – age 3 and 5 – and he wants them to have the joy of spending more time with his father. 

Both men were reassured by the numbers.  UVA has been doing transplants for more than 50 years, and in so doing has extended and improved the quality of life for more than 2,000 people.