Frantic Desert Search Brings Man New Life

Times Staff Writer

In a dramatic race against time, a helicopter search team snatched an Anaheim kidney patient from a remote desert campsite near the Arizona state line just before dawn Sunday and flew him back to Santa Ana to get an organ that matched his uncommon blood type.

Charles Ridgeway, a 47-year-old accounting manager for Rockwell International, was recovering at Western Medical Center in Santa Ana Sunday after a 90-minute transplant operation, a hospital spokesman said.

“Everything went just great,” said Dr. Garo Tertzakian, Ridgeway’s surgeon. Ridgeway’s wife, Betty, his daughter, Robin, 25, and son, Matt, 23, clasped hands as Tertzakian delivered the good news: “His kidney is already showing early signs of function.”

‘An Exciting Time’


Tertzakian said the operation was routine, but the events leading up to it made for “an exciting time last night.” The kidney would have lasted only another 6 hours.

The drama began Saturday evening when the hospital’s transplant coordinator called Matt Ridgeway to tell him that a suitable donor organ for his father had been found. Charles Ridgeway has type B-positive blood, found in about 15% of the population, and the organ’s donor had to have the same blood type for the transplant to take place.

But his father was 200 miles away, on a weekend camping trip with his wife, daughter and family friends near the Imperial County town of Glamis, about 30 miles east of Brawley.

“I thought ‘Oh, this is the one,’ ” said Matt Ridgeway. “I was fairly certain they’d find him.”


Hospital staff tried to page the elder Ridgeway on his beeper, but he was beyond the instrument’s 50-mile range. They then contacted the Orange County Search and Rescue team, a group of volunteers who assist local authorities. The team called the Imperial County sheriff and alerted a local radio station.

KNX radio, whose signal is strong enough to reach into Baja California, broadcast messages every 10 minutes, hoping Ridgeway or someone in his party would hear. They got no reply.

A ranger from the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the federally owned sand dunes, searched the washes where Ridgeway was thought to be, but was unable to find him among the thousands of campers who fled to the desert for Easter weekend. He stopped looking just before midnight.

By then, Matt Ridgeway had already climbed into his truck and driven down to the desert to find his father himself. “I knew they were down in Glamis, and I knew they liked to go to a certain spot. . . . They (the ranger) stopped just short of where he was.”

Reporter Is Airborne

Before he left Anaheim, the younger Ridgeway had talked to KNX reporter-pilot Bob Tur, who decided to fly down in his own jet helicopter to cover the story.

Tur and co-pilot Jim King, a Los Angeles police officer, took off from Santa Monica airport about 1 a.m., breaking the airport’s curfew. They picked up two rescue crew members at John Wayne Airport, and flew through thunderstorms at speeds up to 150 m.p.h. to the desert.

“We got out to the area, and I thought I might see a few campsites,” Tur said. “There are 300 people in ATVs . . . racing around the desert at 3 in the morning, and we’re talking to them on the P.A., saying ‘Charles Ridgeway of Anaheim please get our attention, we have a kidney for you.’ These people don’t believe what is happening.”


About 35 miles east of Brawley, the search party was flagged down by a man “frantically waving at us,” said Tur. It turned out to be Matt Ridgeway, whose truck was stuck in the sand.

Boarding the helicopter, Matt Ridgeway directed it to the family’s camping spot a few miles farther. It was almost 4 a.m.

Is It the Marines?

The campers, asleep in their mobile home, were surprised, to say the least. “I thought the Marines had landed,” said Betty Ridgeway, Charles’ wife.

Matt Ridgeway and the rescue team members rushed to the door and hustled the elder Ridgeway to the helicopter, giving him barely enough time to put on some clothes. “They dragged him out of there in less than a minute,” said Betty Ridgeway.

From the campsite, the helicopter flew to Brawley airport, where the Orange County Search and Rescue team had already dispatched a volunteer pilot in his own plane and a registered nurse from Fullerton airport to fly Charles Ridgeway back to Orange County.

The plane flew the kidney patient on to Western Medical Center, where he arrived by 6 a.m. After receiving pre-surgical dialysis treatment, he was in surgery by 11.

Tertzakian said the organ--whose donor was only identified as a California teen-ager--might have been usable another few hours at the most. “Time is of the essence in organ transplantation . . . we would go to any extremes to find a patient,” he said. “We hate to lose an organ, and this one was difficult to place.


Many Are Needed

“This shows how important it is to donate organs,” said Tertzakian. “Despite the pitch, we still don’t get enough. We have over 100 patients waiting.”

Ridgeway, who was suffering from polycystic kidney failure, began dialysis treatment just two months ago, and had only been placed on the hospital’s list for organ transplants about a month ago. Most patients wait an average of one to two years, Tertzakian said.

Betty Ridgeway said they had wandered out of range of immediate contact with the hospital because doctors had encouraged her husband to lead a “normal” life, which for the couple includes camping.

“We didn’t expect it to happen this weekend, or we wouldn’t have gone,” she said.