Wichita man's second chance at life is ending

Robert Wright and daughter Lorilee Wright months after she donated her kidney to help save her father's life.
Robert Wright and daughter Lorilee Wright months after she donated her kidney to help save her father's life. File photo

Robert Wright is dying again.

No one can save him this time; not even his daughter.

His doctors say he has about one or two months left, perhaps more. He's calling friends to say goodbye. Wright has skin cancer.

His daughter, Lorilee, saved his life nine years ago by donating one of her kidneys, for a transplant done by Chuck Shield at Via Christi Medical Center on St. Francis.

Wright was so far gone from polycystic kidney disease by then that when they removed his dying kidneys, one of them weighed 16 pounds and the other 12. Kidneys normally weigh less than half a pound.

After she donated, Lorilee learned the price. The pain made her cry.

"She gave me nine years of a good life," he said. "What can a guy say? I had a great family. I had wonderful friends, traveled to all the places on Earth that I wanted to travel. Lorilee made it possible; I have no regrets."

After his recovery, he went scuba diving in Fiji, Belize and the Dominican Republic, where he met his third wife, Tatiana, a Russian who's now an American citizen; they married in 2006. Before the cancer and the pain meds take him out of commission, he's teaching her how to pay bills online.

Among other things, Wright said, Lorilee's sacrifice made possible his marriage to Tatiana and the four happiest years of his life since then.

The treatments that kept him alive are probably to blame for killing him. He had to take drugs to suppress his immune system after the transplant. His doctors told him those treatments opened the door to the cancer.

He did a lot with the nine years Lorilee gave him, he said.

"Because of her, I'll die at 70 instead of age 61. I can't thank her enough."

He had argued with Lorilee after she volunteered to save him. She was 32 at the time, her whole life ahead of her; he worried about her safety in the operation and tried to talk her out of donating the kidney. She ignored him.

One joy he's had recently is watching her prepare for her wedding; she's engaged to a good man, he said.

Another joy since his recovery are family dinners that include his daughters Lorilee and Liesl every Sunday. He told his family about the terminal diagnosis a few weeks ago, at one such dinner.

They all got teary-eyed.

"So I told them to stop that crap, we're not going to this; we're going to enjoy it, and enjoy whatever good days I have left."

Lorilee's sacrifice was a big deal nationally, Wright pointed out.

The Eagle described the transplant as it happened, in a four-day serial narrative in November 2001. That story was reprinted in Reader's Digest magazine.

Wright said that story prompted several sick people to seek medical help. He got calls asking for advice and calls of gratitude from people who had their kidney problems diagnosed after they read the story and sought medical help. Others read about his daughter's heroic act and decided to donate a kidney to a relative.

"That story spawned several kidney transplants," he said.

Wright spoke about his death with the directness that many people became familiar with long ago.

His first wife, the mother of Lorilee, is Margalee Wright, who served years ago as mayor of Wichita. He had a stormy relationship with her.

In his younger days Wright was a popular math and geometry teacher at North High School, wore his hair long and organized teachers into a union. Then he switched sides and became a deputy superintendent with a reputation for brilliance, cunning and ferocity in negotiating contracts with those same union people for 17 years.

After his retirement, and after his daughter's generosity spared him, he switched sides again and served as chief negotiator for the teachers for two years.

He dislikes the idea of a funeral, so his children organized a celebration-of-life party several days ago. Cherished friends and family members came, told stories, and held hands in a circle as Frank Sinatra's "My Way," played. People cried.

He says he feels joy at knowing the people he's known, including first wife Margalee. That relationship took a surprising turn when he got sick with an aneurysm a few years ago. Margalee rescued them, befriending and helping his current wife Tatiana, who could not yet drive in this country.

"Margalee's been wonderful," he said.

"At first I was really disappointed about the terminal nature of the illness.

"But then I realized something. Life is like a movie; no one ever wants to walk out in the middle of a movie.

"But in the end we all do that."