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Agent Orange Cost Veteran Ray Tills His Kidneys. Now He’s Hoping for a Christmas Miracle.

Vietnam vet Ray Tills, shown here with wife Karen, believes Agent Orange caused the cancer that has left him seeking a kidney donor.
Vietnam vet Ray Tills, shown here with wife Karen, believes Agent Orange caused the cancer that has left him seeking a kidney donor.
courtesy Ray Tills

While some people this holiday season are hoping for that new jacket or piece of jewelry, Arlington resident Ray Tills wants only one thing, a kidney.

You might have seen his business cards seeking a donor resting on the counter of an Arlington restaurant, his face next to text reading “I’m dying” and “My life depends on it.” You might have seen his car driving in the neighborhood with magnets on either side reading “Save My Life,” with his phone number beneath the plea for help. These magnets and cards are the latest step in a search for a kidney; Tills’ story truly starts decades ago.

Tills served in Vietnam from 1966 to '67 and while in the Navy was exposed to Agent Orange. The infamous toxin was sprayed in large quantities to kill vegetation in Vietnam to allow overhead visibility of enemy supply routes and other points of interest. Exposure to the airborne toxin also shortened the lives of many serving and living in Vietnam.

“I could smell it on my uniform. I could smell it on my skin,” Tills says. “But I thought while a lot of other guys came back and started developing cancers and other problems from it, I didn’t have a problem. I thought I had escaped from it and got lucky.”

Unfortunately, near the Christmas holiday of 2016, Tills discovered he wasn’t as lucky as previously thought. Doctors suspected Tills had cancer developing in his left kidney, and after a biopsy at Arlington Memorial Hospital confirmed as much, the kidney was removed in February 2017. The removal of the left kidney resulted in shock accompanied with repeated failure on his remaining right kidney. Tills has been in search of a donor ever since.

Tills is on a waiting list through the Methodist Dallas Medical Center, but with no guarantee on when, or if, a kidney becomes available, the veteran recognized the need to be proactive. From there the search to find a living donor with either blood type A or O began, becoming a race against the clock that means life or death for Tills.

“When you’re waiting for a deceased kidney, someone dies and donated their kidney, that’s usually a three- or four-year wait,” Tills says. “And I, and many others, don’t have that long.”

For anyone who matches the blood type and is a willing donor, Tills’ insurance will pay all of their costs. The testing, the surgery and the recovery will all be completely covered for the prospective donor. With no expenses out of pocket, the donor needs only the willingness to help a stranger — to give the gift of added years to someone else’s life story.

Tills still feels young at heart and healthy, but he does estimate that perhaps his age gives potential donors a reason to pause. Maybe a donor would want to give it to a younger person who was in need of a transplant.

“My problem is maybe I’m 77,” Tills says. “I’m a young 77. Doctors say there’s nothing else wrong with me except for my kidney. I’ve got a young heart of around a 50-year-old. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve had good genes.”

Several people have stepped up to donate, but negative testing results or shaken nerves have led to dead ends. After all possibilities of friends and family were exhausted, Tills widened his search to DFW. Around this time last year, business cards with his story were donated by a printing company. He went to Facebook to share his story; his pleas for help turned to digital messages in a bottle sent out in hope one helpful share from a stranger would be seen by a donor. Tills bought car magnets that will remain on his car in hope he drives by the right person at the right time.

Unfortunately, Tills’ efforts to find the good in humanity have brought out some of the worst. Tills receives prank calls and facetious offers to provide him a kidney for an astronomical price. Because Tills truly needs this, and can’t take the chance of ignoring any phone call, he answers every time. Each ring of the phone is the possibility of a Christmas miracle, and he’s willing to keep inviting that hope for an end to his search until he can’t any longer.

And even though Tills is desperate for a kidney of his own, he wants his story to help spread the word of the many who came back from Vietnam in worse health because of Agent Orange.

“It’s not a campaign just for me,” Tills says. “It’s a campaign for all these other people out there. Men and women who are looking for a kidney donor. Looking for a liver donor. I’m just one of many.”

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