NSU Grad Donates Organ to Fellow Alumnus

Two Norfolk State University grads who formed a “brotherhood” when they were college roommates nearly 30 years ago shared their love for each other in a different type of way this Valentine’s Day — a living donor organ transplant that will help save one of their lives. It was also National Donor Day.

Richard Koonce, 62, of Sandusky, Ohio, a former Norfolk State assistant professor, received a portion of the liver of his former college roommate, Steve Robinson, 57, of Teaneck, New Jersey, at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, on Feb. 14. Koonce was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC) in 2019, which causes scarring within the bile ducts. The chronic disease can cause severe liver failure, infections, and tumors on the bile duct and liver, according to the American Liver Foundation.

The two men will join a small number of Black patients across the United States who have undergone a living donor transplant procedure.

Nationally, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health reports that Blacks make up the largest group of minorities in need of organ transplants. In 2020, the most recent data set available, the office reported that 28.5 percent of the total candidates waiting on organ transplants were Black, while only 12.9 percent were total organ donors in 2020. Additionally, the total number of Black living donors was 390, while the total of living White organ donors was 4,129.

When Koonce was first diagnosed with PSC he tried several treatment options, but eventually chose to seek out a living donor. Initially, he only reached out to immediate family members, but no one had the same Type O blood. Robinson was unaware of Koonce’s condition until he disclosed it to him during a reunion meeting last summer. Though they have always kept in touch, it was their first time seeing each other in about 20 years.

“I was excited to see him and his family, it was a beautiful moment,” Koonce said. “I didn’t want to tell him about my PSC, but he could tell something was going on.”

When Robinson realized he had the same blood type, he said there was no question in his mind that he wanted to help.

“I love Richard…he is the man that introduced me to my wife and helped me get on the right track…we helped each other grow as men,” Robinson said. “He (Richard) is someone who always looks out for others, and this is a way I can be there for him.”

The two men say their “brotherhood” was formed during their experiences together as students at Norfolk State University, Virginia’s largest historically Black College and University. They were both nontraditional students when they attended Norfolk State in the 1990s. Koonce enrolled at NSU after serving in the U.S. Air Force. Robinson enrolled at NSU when he was in his early 20s. They first met while working behind a bar at a restaurant in Norfolk. When they realized they both attended NSU, the two decided to become roommates.

“The HBCU experience is a beautiful thing—you get love, nurturing, encouragement and lifelong friendships,” Robinson said. “When I graduated from NSU I felt I could accomplish anything, and those sentiments still hold true today.”

After they graduated from Norfolk State, Koonce began a career in journalism and later earned a Ph.D. He has worked in higher and public education for more than 25 years, and currently serves as a college prep director and head girls’ basketball coach for Sandusky Public Schools. Robinson worked as a designer at newspapers in California and New Jersey. He now operates his own graphic design firm in New Jersey.

Koonce said he is thankful for his friend and brother.

“I am a spiritual person, and this experience has reaffirmed my faith,” Koonce said. “Eventually, this PSC would take its toll. Steve is giving me the gift of life.”