Rob Pokora received life-saving help from an unexpected person: his son's teacher.
When Pokora was placed on the kidney transplant list in 2015, he didn’t want anyone to know or think of him as sick. He turned down his son’s offer to host a find-Rob-a-kidney fundraiser and said no when his wife suggested an Instagram page. He wouldn’t even allow them to send a letter to friends and family asking for a kidney or prayers. Carrying on, he went to dialysis at 5 a.m. and made it to work on time.
“The catch-22 is, if nobody knows, nobody can help you,” Pokora, 52, tells PEOPLE. “There was no hope. It was my own fault.”
About a year ago, his then-17-year-old son Robbie was feeling stressed and scared. With his father getting sicker, the teenager wanted to donate a kidney himself, but he was too young.
Robbie — the valedictorian of his class and Quiz Bowl team captain at Eastside High School in Greer, South Carolina — confided in his quiz coach and AP government teacher, Ray Steadman, with whom the student would regularly discuss politics and news as the duo grabbed lunch together.
“I just needed someone to talk to,” Robbie says. “I wasn’t asking him to give my dad a kidney. It was just a friend talking to a friend.”
But as he listened to Robbie, Steadman heard a voice inside his head tell him, “You can do this.”
Steadman, 51, talked to his wife, doctor, pastor and principal. About a week after that lunch conversation, he told the Pokora family that he wanted to be Rob's donor.
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Steadman is an active man who runs, works out with a personal trainer, and walks his children to school. Even though doctors didn’t require him to lose weight for the procedure, he cut sugar from his diet and worked with his trainer to strengthen his core muscles and lower his BMI and blood pressure. After all the effort, he dropped 20 lbs. before the surgery on Aug. 14.
Both men came through with no complications. They are both happy, healthy, and back at work.
“I don’t feel like I’m missing anything,” Steadman says. “It’s almost as if I’d been carrying his kidney all along.”
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While recovering from surgery, Steadman missed the first six weeks of school. Students wondered where the teacher was, only to learn about the touching transplant upon his return to class.
“What he teaches in economics and government is great," Robbie says. "But the life lessons he’s able to tell his students this year are more than he could through teaching his normal history classes."
Now a freshman in the University of South Carolina Honors College, where he studies biochemistry and minors in both Spanish and math, 18-year-old Robbie hopes to become a nephrologist or a kidney transplant surgeon someday. And he plans to become a kidney donor himself, “whether it’s to a random person, or to my dad in the future,” he tells PEOPLE.
In the meantime, the Pokoras say they have gained another family member — and regularly tell Steadman’s two children that their dad is a hero.
“We’ll always be connected,” says dad Rob Pokora.