USTA Focus: Holding Out for Hope

New York horseman remains positive as he waits for another kidney transplant

story by Ken Weingartner

 

When Jim Urtel Jr. was 12, he fell in love with horses and harness racing. In the ensuing years, he enjoyed operating a small stable, often with his father, while also working for several other trainers, primarily in western New York and Pennsylvania.

Thirty years after jogging and training his first horse, though, Urtel was forced to give up his days at the barn. The Batavia, N.Y., resident was diagnosed with kidney failure in 2012 and spent eight years on dialysis while waiting for a kidney donation. He finally received a transplant from a deceased donor in 2020, but the kidney has not functioned as hoped, leaving Urtel in need of another transplant.

As he waits again, Urtel draws inspiration from the horses that were a big part of his life, even if he is unable to spend much time with them now.

“When you get a good old classy horse, you call them a warhorse,” Urtel said. “They need help to get by, but they keep going. That’s kind of what I am now. I’ve got to play that part. I need a little help, but I keep trying to fight and keep going with it all.”

 

Urtel’s fight began 11 years ago when he visited the emergency room thinking he might have bronchitis.

“I had been having trouble breathing when lying down and went thinking
I needed an antibiotic,” Urtel said. “They did a bunch of tests and told me my kidneys were in complete failure and my blood pressure was 232/112. Diabetes is the main cause for kidney failure, but blood pressure is No. 2. It’s amazing it didn’t get me.”

Prior to his diagnosis, Urtel had been training a horse for his dad and working for another stable at Batavia. His father had introduced him to racing, first as a fan.

“I always went to the track with him and watched the races,” Urtel said. “My father had a friend named Bill Verney, who raced horses back then, and he had a farm near us and told us to stop by. I was 12 years old. He let me jog my first horse. Then you’re done. You’re hooked for life once you get into that.

“Basically, from the time I was 12, my father always had horses. He’d have one or two at a time; they were always like a little side thing. He had a lot of cheaper horses, but through the years we learned with them. We had a lot of horses [with issues] that we would bring back and win races with at Batavia and Buffalo.”

Urtel’s fondest racing memories involve horses he had with his dad, such as trotter T C Express, who was a seven-time winner on the Batavia-Buffalo circuit in 2007, and Holly-Views Nat, who was a winner for Urtel when he was at Pocono Downs.

“I took a lot of pride in it,” Urtel said about his time as a trainer and assistant. “I would go home after the race and watch the replays. You’d see things and you could come back and try to fix it the next day. If you’re going to do it, it’s your life.

“I miss the horses immensely every day. I spent a lot of time with them. I’d go to the barn and sit with them and walk them and talk to them. They’re not going to talk back, but they listen. I had always had that feeling with them. They know.”

 

Urtel’s focus now is on maintaining his health—he’s lost more than 50 pounds thanks to a fitness plan—and remaining positive as he waits for another kidney transplant. He is working with Kidneys for Communities in the hopes of finding a living donor in the near future. The nonprofit organization looks to connect living donors and recipients by harnessing the power of their shared communities. Those could be family, friends, colleagues, faith-based institutions or any number of other groups.

“Ninety-six percent of donations in the U.S. have been made to people that the donor knows or identifies with,” said Atul Agnihotri, CEO of Kidneys for Communities and himself a kidney transplant recipient. “Most patients don’t know what to do when they have a kidney failure. They don’t know where to look for help. That’s where we come in.”

Kidneys for Communities offers support and benefits packages to prospective donors. Donors do not have to live in the same geographic area as recipients, nor do they have to be a direct match to a specific recipient. Roughly, 33 percent of willing donors are incompatible with their intended recipient, but through paired donations, matches can be made from a pool of pairs in the same situation. This can create a chain of matches that exponentially impact the opportunities to connect donors and recipients.

“We have a lot of tools in our tool belt, and pair-matching is one of them,” Agnihotri said. “We are different also in how we support the donors. That’s another tool we have. We offer donors one of the most robust donor benefits and support packages in the industry. We do that to eliminate the barriers and create a pathway to donate.

“Our goal is to create all these tool sets to enable most people to donate and for recipients to find kidneys. We don’t charge any patient, donor, hospital anything. It’s not easy, but it is our commitment.”

 

Agnihotri’s path to that commitment began in December 2015 when he was diagnosed with kidney failure.

“I had always been an athletic kind of person,” Agnihotri said. “I did not have any symptoms that would have given me forewarning that I had some sort of kidney problem going on. Obviously, panic set in. I didn’t know what to do.”

Agnihotri was fortunate to receive a transplant in several months—which, he noted, “is unheard of.” It inspired him to leave a senior position at a Fortune 500 company to help others navigate the challenges related to kidney donations. Approximately 100,000 people in the U.S. are on the waiting list for a donation.

“I felt for the people that were not as lucky as I was; I felt like I needed to do something,” Agnihotri said. “As I learned more and more, I felt there are so many resources available to help people; they’re just not collected and made available to a patient. That compelled me to leave my corporate life and start this nonprofit where we provide all the help. I felt if I seriously wanted to help people, I needed to be seriously engaged in it and not do it as a part-time thing.”

He added, “Any form of kidney donation is the highest form of gift that one can give.”

 

Urtel hopes he can motivate others in his situation as he awaits that gift.

“For everything I’ve been through, I’m lucky,” Urtel said. “I spent eight years in dialysis looking at people who aren’t with us anymore. I lost so many people in there. When you go through all that, it changes your outlook on a lot of things. I’m not the only guy out there with problems. You have to keep doing what you can do while you’re here. Maybe I can inspire a few people. You just keep positive.”

For more information, visit Jim Urtel Jr.’s page on the Kidneys for Communities website at https://kidneysforcommunities.org/recipient/jim-urtel/. Potential donors are under no obligation and can withdraw from the process at any time. HB

 

Ken Weingartner is the USTA media relations manager. To comment on this story, email us at readerforum@ustrotting.com.

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