Jimmy O'Conor: Cheating death for four decades

Three-time kidney recipient raises funds to fight disease
March 24, 2015

Dewey Beach is a town of casual people, and there may not be a person with a more casual persona than Woody’s East Coast Bar & Grill owner Jimmy O’Conor.

O’Conor is rarely seen in anything other than a Woody’s hooded sweatshirt or T-shirt, shorts or jeans, sneakers and sunglasses. He’s always got a smile on his face.

O’Conor comes off as a man who appreciates life, friends and family, and while there are multiple reasons why, there may not be a reason more important than because at the age of 5 he was essentially told he was going to die.

After spending a year in Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore battling kidney disease, he was released to his mother when the doctors thought he wasn’t going to live and might as well spend the rest of what life he had in the comfort of his home.

“They literally just gave me back to my mom and told her that I wasn’t going to make it,” said O’Conor during an interview in his restaurant.

O’Conor, now 51, has been dealing with kidney disease his entire life, and he said the doctors still don’t know why he got it.

“It’s not hereditary, and nobody in the family has it,” he said.

According to the National Kidney Foundation 26 million American adults have kidney disease and every day 12 people die waiting for a kidney transplant.

O’Conor is a three-time kidney transplant recipient. He got his first in 1992 at the age of 28 and his mother donated it. He got his second 12 years later and his brother-in-law donated his. The third came from a stranger in 2011 after his wife donated hers to the stranger’s daughter.

It’s called a paired kidney exchange, explained O’Conor of the third donation. It happens when two people in need of a transplant have willing donors, but the donor is not a match for the recipient. He said there are two operating rooms next to each other and they basically just swap kidneys out.

“It’s a great way for people who don’t have an exact match,” O’Conor said.

O’Conor explained there are six characteristics doctors look for when deciding if a transplant will be successful. He said because of modern medicine and anti-rejection drugs, all six characteristics don’t need to match, but the more the better.

O’Conor said he knows he’s been especially fortunate to have had people in his life willing to donate a kidney. He said he’s also turned down a transplant because he had one lined up and wanted someone without people willing to donate to get one.

“It’s just amazing. My friends and family have been very good to me,” he said.

O’Conor said the procedure for a kidney transplant has come a long way since his first.

When his mother donated hers, the doctors made an incision from the bottom of her rib cage around to her back, and broke two of her ribs to get at the kidney. Her recovery time was nearly two months.

When his brother-in-law donated his, the doctors made a small incision on his belly and two holes on his back. His recovery time was one week.

When his wife donated hers, the doctors removed the kidney through a hole in her belly button. She had surgery on Wednesday and was home on Saturday, said O’Conor, and it’s impossible to tell there was any surgery done.

O’Conor said his newest kidney has been working just fine, but there’s never a day it doesn’t require work. He takes eight pills in the morning and eight pills at night to help prevent his body from rejecting what it considers to be a foreign object.

The red blood cells are constantly trying to attack it, he said, and the drugs essentially create a shield around the kidney. He said he also gets blood work once a month, does all he can to avoid getting colds and doesn’t add salt to anything.

Through the years, O’Conor has become active in raising awareness for kidney disease. The month of March is recognized as National Kidney Awareness Month, and the bar area of Woody’s usually has little kidney-shaped cutouts hanging from above representing donations made by patrons.

All the money goes toward the annual Southern Delaware Kidney Walk, said O’Conor. Last year $8,700 was raised before the event even took place.

“I do what I can to donate and raise awareness about the disease,” he said.

O’Conor is a member of the Dewey Beach Lions Club, and the group held a fundraiser for Kidney Awareness Day, March 12.

O’Conor said he doesn’t think about life and death too much, but when there’s another person’s body part keeping him alive, he can’t help but think about it sometimes.

“I probably think about it more than most, but not every day,” he said.

Crab cake recipe - don’t try to get it

No interview with O’Conor is complete without asking about Woody’s crab cakes. As open as he is with his battles with kidney disease, that’s how tight-lipped he is about those crab cakes.

The Cape Region has dozens of restaurants vying for attention of customers, and those crab cakes have put the small establishment on the foodie map.

“I knew it was a good crab cake,” O’Conor said, adding that he’s still surprised by the loyal following it’s gained. “It’s about keeping something consistent with the same quality.”

O’Conor said he’s always asked about the recipe, which is a list of ingredients and method of preparation that were honed during his days in the restaurant business in Baltimore. He said he’ll give questioners the ingredients, but never the amount, who provides the crab meat or where the rolls are from.

The recipe for crab cakes served at Woody’s is literally under lock and key, and, O’Conor said, he recently made his employees sign a confidentiality agreement because someone told him they had been offered money for the recipe.

O’Conor said for the first three years of Woody’s he prepared every single batch of crab cake mix. Over the years he’s entrusted employees with the recipe, but, he said, there are only four employees who actually know how the crab cakes are made.

The surprising thing about the crab cakes is that O’Conor swears he’s never actually eaten a whole cake. He said throughout the preparation process he’ll take a nibble here and a nibble there, but never the whole thing.

Dewey’s changed

O’Conor first started coming to Dewey in 1982 when he was living in Ocean City, Md. He said he never spent a whole summer in the town until he opened the restaurant, but he would visit a couple of times a year.

He said the first winter after he opened Woody’s was brutally slow, but he never considered closing. People just didn’t drive south of the Captain’s Table, he said.

“We’d leave here, after a slow night, and then the Captain’s Table would be full,” he said. “It’s gotten a lot better,” he said.

O’Conor said now there’s a steady stream of customers through the winter, and Dewey really is turning into a family-friendly place.

“It’s still got a vibrant nightlife,” he added.

Whether it’s the summer season-opening party in May, the season-closing party in September or the Christmas celebration in December, O’Conor can be seen manning a grill full of hamburgers and hotdogs at just about every townwide event.

“Dewey is where I spend 90 percent of my time, and fortunately it’s something I can do,” he said modestly.

Just like getting tested for a kidney transplant is for others.

Receiving a donation is a life-changing event, he said, and for some, so is donating.

“There’s a misconception that’s it’s hard to do, but it’s not,” said O’Conor. “My mother was always so proud.”


  • The Cape Gazette staff has been doing Saltwater Portraits weekly (mostly) for more than 20 years. Reporters, on a rotating basis, prepare written and photographic portraits of a wide variety of characters peopling Delaware's Cape Region. Saltwater Portraits typically appear in the Cape Gazette's Tuesday edition as the lead story in the Cape Life section.

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