Kidney donation saves life of Berkeley’s former fire chief

A failing kidney forced Gil Dong to leave the fire department in 2017. He and his donor, a longtime friend, hope more Asian Americans will consider organ donation.

Former Berkeley Fire Chief Gil Dong (left) received a transplant of his friend Peter Yung’s kidney on April 4, 2018. The pair got together on the one-year anniversary of the surgery. Courtesy: Gil Dong

Former Berkeley Fire Chief Gil Dong has been through a lot since he left the department in 2017.

Dong was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease, in 2001, which first showed up in the form of fatigue and joint pain. While he was able to treat it with medication, by 2017 his health had worsened enough to force his retirement. Both of his kidneys had failed to the point where he needed dialysis.

Rather than hemodialysis, which requires regular visits to a dialysis center, he chose to do peritoneal dialysis, which he could do at home. But it meant being hooked up to a machine 10 hours a day, every day (he usually did it at night).

A resident of Oakland, Dong, 58, began his career in Berkeley in 1990, as both a firefighter and a paramedic, working his way up the ranks. From 2007 to 2012, he served as Berkeley’s deputy fire chief, and was Berkeley’s fire chief from 2012 to 2017. Between 2015 and 2016, he served as both fire chief and interim deputy city manager.

When Peter Yung heard his friend Dong was in need of a kidney, he was among the first in Dong’s inner circle to sign up to be tested. And truth be told, he never thought he’d be a match, Yung recalled. His years of working as both a firefighter and a paramedic had taken their toll, he said. He dealt with the stress of the job by overindulging in both alcohol and junk food.

So, imagine his surprise when he found out not only that he was a good match for Dong, but that his organ was healthy enough.

Dong’s friendship with Yung, 60, who now lives in Windsor, predates his tenure with the city of Berkeley. They worked together as paramedics in East Oakland, in the 1980s, and have been close friends ever since.

Dong and Yung in May 2000 at the unveiling of the California Firefighter Memorial. Courtesy: Gil Dong

While he was on dialysis, 14 people in his immediate circle began preliminary testing to see if they could be a possible match.

“A lot of people rule themselves out of donating because of one thing or another, but I always encourage people to leave that up to the transplant team,” said Dr. Steve Katznelson, nephrologist and medical director of kidney transplants at Sutter’s California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, where Dong and Yung’s transplant was performed. The center performs around 200 transplants a year.

“One of the older reasons we hear of is that people think if they aren’t a blood relative or family member they can’t donate, but that’s not true. Even now, people believe they have to be the same blood type, but there are swaps done that allow donors to donate to another recipient.”

Katznelson also emphasized that while in the Dong-Yung case both men are of Chinese-American heritage, one need not be of the same genetic background to donate to another.

Now coming up on four years since their surgeries, they’re sharing their story both for National Kidney Month, and because Asian Americans are often less likely to donate organs. They made up 8.5% of people on the country’s organ donation transplant list in 2020, but just 3% of donors, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. And only around a quarter of Asian Americans waiting for organs received transplants that year, compared with nearly half of white Americans.  

Dong said that while he was aware of the taboos in Chinese culture about organ donation, they both saw firsthand as EMTs how transplants via organ donation saved lives.

“There are a lot fewer donations among people of Asian descent, as the older generation believes you should go into the afterlife with all your body parts,” he said.

Yung definitely experienced some negativity about his decision from older relatives. One aunt hung up the phone on him.

Later, he told her, “I have to do this for my friend so he can live,” and asked her, “What would you do if one of your daughters needed a kidney?” He doesn’t know if was able to change her mind.

“She still talks to me,” he said. “She didn’t say much more about it but I didn’t need her to say anything.”

Dong says his transplant gave him a second chance at life.

“How do you repay someone who does that for you? You don’t,” Dong said. “I have to do whatever he wants,” he joked. “It’s a constant thank you.”

And while Yung wasn’t ill himself, he still believes that on a spiritual level, he has received a gift from this, too. He too sees it as a second chance and a new lease on life.

“It’s an effortless act of selflessness,” said Yung, who described his recovery as short and not a big deal. “It didn’t cost me or him anything, and the gift is immense. It’s kind of a no-brainer. If one of your loved ones needs one, or a friend of a friend, you should probably just step up.”

Beyond the gift of giving, Yung said it’s a gift to himself as well because four months after the surgery in which Yung gave up a kidney, he also gave up alcohol.

“For his entire life, Peter has been a caretaker, it’s who he is and he’ll never say no,” said Dong. “It’s a bond you can’t break, truly becoming a blood brother.”

“People now tell me I’m a hero, but I only did this because it fell on my radar,” said Yung. “The true heroes to me are the ones who do it blindly.”

Meanwhile, Dong has gone back to work as a labor analyst.

“The minute I got my new kidney, I began thinking of looking for another job,” he said. “I had so much energy, it was like night and day.”

While many people questioned that decision, he said, “I’m bored if I’m not working and I didn’t want to be a couch potato. People start declining when they don’t use their minds. I’m always stimulating my mind and learning new things.”

When asked what Dong thinks about, knowing he has a piece of his friend in his body, he said, “Peter was always the cool guy and I was the nerdy guy. I think I’ve taken on a little of his swagger.”

When Yung was asked if he noticed that about his friend, he laughed, saying, “He still kind of acts nerdy to me so I’ll have to check next time when we hang out.”

Alix Wall has lived in Oakland since 2002, with some summers spent in Berkeley as a child, and has written for Berkeleyside since 2013. She writes mostly about food.