Editor note: Most of the following story was published two years ago. Judith Blair was diagnosed with lung cancer this year, and she has unfortunately succumbed to that disease at 71. She is the mom of former Arizona standout Joseph Blair, a community activist who is now an assistant coach with the Philadelphia 76ers.
“You’d like to make a difference, if only you could, to keep someone from dying, you know that you should. Life’s so precious, now facing an end It’s in your heart to change it, years to extend — The gift that goes on living.”
— Lyric’s from Judith Blair’s “Gift of Life” song
On July 26, 2001, Judith Blair’s fateful experience not only saved a life but impacted her own and the lives of countless others.
This was the day Blair donated one of her kidneys to Dr. Michael Burgoon, a University of Arizona professor whom her son, Joseph Blair, knew during his basketball playing days with the Wildcats.
“Many years passed and I didn’t think anything of it, but this year I’m just extremely grateful to be so healthy with one kidney for 16 years,” Judith said in an interview with me in 2017. “I’m also thankful that (Burgoon’s) life was extended 13 years.”
Burgoon passed away at age 69 from a heart attack in 2014.
Judith became a strong advocate for organ donations soon after the transplant. She continued to work diligently bringing awareness to the tremendous need for organs to be donated to save lives.
The license plate on her car: GV KDNY
“I just perceived it as a mandate from God that I was to do that,” Judith said of the kidney transplant. “I didn’t have any fear, any anxiety. I was just going to do the surgery.
“I had no idea I was going to spend the next 16 years promoting organ donation. I considered myself part of the naive status quo. I had no idea until after the donation that thousands of people are waiting for a phone call just to live. We’re cremating and burying organs that can keep them alive.”
Judith tried as much as possible — through numerous media interviews over the years and participation in senior sporting events — to spread the word about the benefits of organ donation. She stressed to register at DonateLifeAZ.org or call 1-800-94DONOR to become an organ donor.
In Arizona alone, more than 2,300 people are waiting for life-saving organs. A significant increase in organ donations has occurred since Judith’s courageous gesture 18 years ago. She wanted to see a lot more people step forward to provide a gift of life to someone in need.
“One thing to take note of is I was part of the No. 32 kidney transplant at the Mayo hospital in Scottsdale,” she said. “They have now exceeded or surpassed 3,000 kidney transplants, which I think is miraculous.”
Organ donations have been important to the Arizona basketball family in another way, when Justin Wessel, a member of the 1996-97 national championship team, required a cornea transplant before coming to Tucson.
Along with Judith’s quest to make organ donations more prevalent, Judith was also on a mission to have people take on a more healthy lifestyle to help prevent the need for transplants.
The removal of her kidney was performed by laparoscopy at the Mayo Clinic. That means a small incision was made for doctors to view by camera where her kidney was located. It was removed through small incisions, which allowed for a shorter time for Judith to recover and be back on her feet to resume her running prowess in the Senior Olympics.
Her only restriction was not lifting anything more than 20 pounds for six weeks. She was power walking again within two to three weeks. She prepared for the transplant by power walking five miles a day and drinking a gallon of water a day, in order to provide a healthy kidney.
The kidney was functioning for Burgoon at 100 percent capacity within 24 hours, a miraculous development in such a short period of time.
Judith did not leave anything to chance. Her aggressive style with a positive outlook made her goals achievable.
“Less than 90 days after the surgery, I ran the 50-, 100- and 200-meter sprints at the Senior Olympics,” she said. “That showed people that donating a kidney does not negatively affect your lifestyle.
“I’m still active every day. … I work out every morning. I used to run more but now I work out at the pool every morning. The two leading causes of kidney disease are diabetes and hypertension, which is high blood pressure, but yet so many people are not walking or exercising and eating healthy food and using means of prevention that they could.”
Judith’s parents each died from heart attacks. She required surgery on her heart a few years ago to correct a problem. She became 100 percent healthy with more aspirations to be involved in senior competitions.
She competed in the Senior Olympics in Tucson, Phoenix, Las Vegas, St. George (Utah) and Houston with the effort in mind to promote organ donation. She wore a shirt that showed one kidney when she ran in these events.
Judith served one year as the chairperson for the Arizona Kidney Foundation Kidney Walk. She worked for the Donor Network.
She spoke proudly of being honored by the Phoenix Suns when Arizona legend Sean Elliott visited as a broadcaster for one of San Antonio’s games. Elliott received a life-saving kidney transplant from his brother Noah. Judith was honored by the Suns at midcourt for her donation.
The genesis for her drive to promote organ donations was meeting Burgoon in his office on the Arizona campus.
“I had Dr. Burgoon’s business card from when Joseph attended school here,” Judith said. “When I moved to Tucson, I looked him up and went to his office. I was aghast at his appearance. He was thin with kidney failure. I called his wife and found out he was in kidney failure.”
Sitting in the packed McKale Center for a basketball game shortly thereafter served as an epiphany for Judith when it came to the potential for more kidney donations to save lives.
“I went to their seats (at McKale) and he wasn’t there. I told his wife that I would gladly donate one of my kidneys,” Judith said. “As I sat there among 14,000 people at McKale, I thought what if I needed a kidney and I’m sitting amongst 28,000 (kidneys) and I need just one to live, how would I feel?
“Making the donation was a combination of compassion for his need and obedience to God leading me to do that.”
Judith heard the word courageous for what she did for Burgoon 18 years ago. She talked about some of her life’s hardships, including raising her sons Jonathon and Joseph on her own as a single mom after getting divorced, and mentioned with a laugh, “The kidney transplant was like a walk in the park compared to what I’ve been through.”
Another challenge Judith confronted was participating in events that included kidney transplant patients. Up until five years ago only kidney transplant recipients were allowed to participate. Not all of them permit donors to compete, which she said is a “blatant bias.”
Judith ran in the National Transplant Games in 2014 as a member of Transplant Team Arizona Inc., a non-profit organization whose purpose is to end the wait for transplants.
“I hadn’t been on a track in eight years,” she said. “I work out in the pool. I use music, the beats per minute running in the pool. I got two silver medals. I ran the 100 in 19 seconds and I got second place in the 200. I planned on going to South America the next year and up until the month before and found out only recipients can go.”
Her impetus for staying active involved organ transplant awareness but stemmed from when she was unable to participate in team sports when attending high school in Ohio.
“In school, I ran Junior Olympics and got third in the state but there was nothing in the school system for girls,” she said. “At the high school level in Ohio, back then, there were no girls sports.
“I continue to exercise daily and maintain a good healthy lifestyle. I encourage others to do the same.”
Judith impacted the lives of her sons Jonathon and Joseph in many ways, including staying healthy and in shape and giving back to the community. Her example has made an obvious influence on Joseph, who heads the Blair Charity Group.
A year before Judith donated her kidney to Burgoon in 2000, Joseph started the Arizona Basketball Academy — a weeklong basketball and life training camp free of charge to disadvantaged youth in Tucson.
It was documented during Joseph’s career with Arizona that Judith’s trying times as a single mother raising two boys included having to go to the Salvation Army in Akron, Ohio, for a food voucher and toys for Christmas one year.
“Even with Joseph’s basketball camps … I sold my piano in order to get him into a basketball camp, Dale Brown’s at LSU,” Judith said. “He remembers that and he remembers the shoes being expensive. He knows how mothers stretch to provide for their kids.
“The community thing is we just all had a heart for the less fortunate because of what we went through.”
In an interview with the Arizona Daily Star when he was a senior at Arizona, Joseph said, “Everybody goes through their own struggles, be it physical, mental or emotional. We had a little bit of everything while I was growing up. … You need to start thinking of everybody who’s ever been there for you. Maybe I can be the backbone for someone like these people have been for me.”
Basketball became significant for Jonathan and Joseph because of their mother’s love for the sport, starting when she watched Bobby Knight, Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek play with Ohio State.
She not only was a positive influence at home for her boys but also a teacher of the game as a coach for their youth league team in Houston.
“They were in the fifth and sixth grade. I used to blindfold them so they can learn how to dribble without watching the ball,” Judith said. “And I took them out and taught them the weave never knowing that Joseph would become a (Harlem) Globetrotter (which Joseph was the year Judith made her kidney donation).”
In addition to her active lifestyle, Judith took the time to put her thoughts on paper as a songwriter. She wrote one song, “The Gift of Life,” she was especially proud of.
“Giving is very important to me. I’m a firm believer that in giving, you receive,” she said.
“What I did, donating my kidney to Dr. Burgoon, was an act of obedience to God, not a sacrifice.”
Funeral arrangements for Judith Blair are pending.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.