"We are humbled"—Justin Zanik & Family Express Gratitude Ahead of Kidney Transplant

The life of an NBA general manager entails countless hours of phone calls, endless text message exchanges, extended strategic meetings, thousands of frames of film, traveling from one corner of the globe to the next, and being continually vigilant to ensure your team is on the right path. In the hyper-competitive sports world and working in an always-on leadership role, it’s sometimes easy to put life chores on the back burner. In the hustle and bustle of the grind, it's also easy to ignore reminders from loved ones to “take care of yourself,” “get some rest,” “slow down,” or “get that checked out,” whatever “that” might be. As Utah Jazz general manager Justin Zanik recently found out, those sometimes seemingly innocuous reminders could be the ones that help save your life.

“My wife [Gina] had been telling me over the past summer that she thought I was more tired,” said Zanik. “I said, ‘Of course I’m tired.’ I had just gotten back from the [FIBA] World Cup, spent 10 days in Japan and the Philippines, came home for two weeks, and went back out to Australia for the NBL Blitz for eight days. I had promised her I would get a physical as soon as I got back from Australia.”

After traveling over the Pacific Ocean twice and flying more than 25,000 miles in the span of three weeks, Zanik wisely heeded his wife’s advice to get his much overdue physical out of the way when he got home. Most results came back from this apparently routine physical with flying colors, with one exception that shifted the Zanik family’s world.

“Everything was really, really good,” said Zanik. “Except for my kidney function… My kidney function was at 14 percent.”

For an unknown length of time - perhaps months - Zanik had been living and operating at a high level with his kidneys working at 14 percent. Anything under 15 percent is kidney failure. Zanik had been operating at full capacity at the Jazz and in his personal life in kidney failure and only found out because he got a physical. 

Although he had known about a genetic predisposition, Zanik’s doctors discovered that he had PKD (polycystic kidney disease), a disease for which his father had received a kidney transplant 21 years ago. 

“Your first thoughts are like, ‘what’s going to happen to me? What’s dialysis like? When’s that going to happen? Transplant?’ All those things run through your mind,” said Zanik. “But my support group, my wife, my kids, my family… what we were able to do is immediately start meeting with a nephrologist, and I’m very grateful for him. His name is Dr. Fuad Shiha. We immediately launched the process.”

Passionate and dedicated in his role, Zanik was able to maintain his high-level of focus at work while he and his family sussed out a long-term plan for his diagnosis. With a lot of research and working hand-in-hand with his medical team at the University of Utah, Zanik decided that a transplant was necessary to maintain the quality of life he wanted. But the path there is never as straightforward as it seems.

“A lot of people assume that organ donation is a box you check on your driver’s license and if something happens to you, you can donate,” said Zanik. “But what’s really cool about medical technology now and science, which has been going on for a while, is a living donor transplant. Where someone that is a match for you based on blood type and a lot of other factors [can work]. But finding that match can be hard.”

With the deceased donor kidney donor list being about three to five years out, the Zaniks turned to other options. Working with University of Utah Health, the family looked to a program called the Living Donor Program through the National Kidney Registry where an individual can find someone to donate on their behalf, even if they aren’t a match, and because of that donation, be paired up with another matching donor who they otherwise had zero connection with. With his familial history and genetic predispositions, many within his immediate circle weren't eligible for donation, but this program and its outside-the-box thinking gave Zanik another option. 

“This system has allowed people access to better outcomes with organ transplants,” said Zanik. “Because unlike 20 or 30 years ago, you’re no longer limited to the people that you know, the people in your circle. But I had a bunch of very motivated donors. Being really motivated to do it really speeds up the process.”

Zanik got the news in early March that one of his friends who wanted to donate on his behalf was medically cleared. He was not a direct match with Zanik, but through the Kidney Exchange Program, was able to provide someone else in the United States with a kidney, and, therefore, made Zanik eligible to be linked with a matching donor who is simply a good Samaritan.

“They went into the registry and found a donor who is as good of a match as if it's from my own family who is donating because of the need, because of how many people need kidneys,” said Zanik. 

Zanik’s kidney transplant is scheduled for tomorrow, April 2. He will take a brief hiatus while recovering from his transplant and says he will be anxious to get back to the office to work with so many great people that have been in his corner since finding out he needed a kidney transplant. Grateful and humbled by his journey, and feeling fortunate to have caught the failure of his kidney function when he did, Zanik also had to come to terms with the psychological nuances of this affliction.

“[It was] going to have to be me being okay with talking about it,” said Zanik. “In my job and in my career, I’ve always been a fixer. I’ve always been the one that fixes everything else and supports. So it was hard for me at the beginning to talk about, me needing to be fixed and needing to be helped. Once I got over that, through a lot of help with my wife, I started talking about it internally with my family and my Jazz family and the support and response was just humbling.”

The Utah Jazz issued the following statement in support of the Zanik family. “The Utah Jazz send our love and support to general manager Justin Zanik, his wife Gina, and their family as Justin prepares for a kidney transplant to address polycystic kidney disease (PKD), a genetic disorder that affects kidney function. JZ is an instrumental part of our organization, and we look forward to his return in the coming weeks.”

This year-long process has been eye-opening for Zanik, who has seen firsthand how the selflessness of others can give people a second chance, and he wants to be a living example of how kidney donation can save lives.

“With regard to organ donation, kidney transplants are one of those gifts you can give to people to prolong their lives while you’re still alive,” said Zanik. “It was really interesting just learning about the process and how streamlined it is and how it can optimize outcomes for patients to not only extend their lives but also allow them to have a very full and fulfilling life.”

Along with creating understanding of his specific condition, Zanik credits his wife for spreading awareness about one of the most important pieces of advice he has ever received.

Courtesy of the Zanik family

“Go see your doctor,” said Zanik. “Go see them once a year. It’s a pain sometimes. We’re all busy. We have family, we have kids, and we have our careers, and sometimes it’s easy to put that to the side about our own health, especially if we feel okay. The best thing you can do to take care of yourself is to have someone take a look.”

The Zanik family issued the following statement as their final public comment ahead of Justin’s procedure tomorrow. “As we take the next step in this journey, we would like to extend our deepest gratitude to University of Utah Health and their incredible medical staff. The care, expertise, and guidance they have provided our family and many others, has been invaluable. We also want to recognize and thank the Living Donor Program for the extraordinary life-saving work that they do. We are immensely thankful to Ryan and Ashley Smith and our entire Utah Jazz family. The love we have felt and continue to feel is immeasurable. We are humbled and grateful to all of the donors that signed up to donate on Justin’s behalf. Justin looks forward to getting back to work in the coming weeks, and greatly appreciates the organization’s continued support during this process. To our families and our friends, thank you for your continued love, support and prayers.