Thornetta Davis celebrates couple’s organ donation

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Detroit — Rhythm and blues is what Robert “Junior” Whitall is all about.

The soulful, gritty music was the magic that brought him together with his future wife, Shirley “Sugar Mae” Owens. The Royal Oak couple, now married for 19 years, publish a national magazine: Big City Rhythm & Blues.

So when Whitall got sick and needed a kidney transplant, his wife discovered she was a perfect match. After a 14-hour surgery in August at Henry Ford Hospital, both continue to recover outside the hospital.

“I’m just a lucky stiff,” said Whitall, 70, with his arm wrapped around his wife’s waist. “She’s an angel without wings.”

He added: “It’s a big thing to be healthy and give something up from your body. I picked a good wife. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.”

His wife, 62, noted: “It’s been over six months, and I’m feeling really good. It worked because of the great surgeons here at Henry Ford Hospital.”

But since the blues are never far away, it was fitting Thornetta Davis would send a surprise recorded message of encouragement and blessings for them to watch during a gathering at the hospital Tuesday, joined by medical staff and others.

“This is Detroit’s ‘Queen of the Blues,’ Thornetta Davis,” the recording starts. “But I’m not here to talk about the blues. I’m here to talk about organ donation. Sugar, it takes a very special person to donate a kidney, and you are that special person. I wish you both a speedy recovery. We need more donors.”

Davis also has a special reason why she is so passionate about organ donation.

“My sister is on the list for two lung transplants,” she continued. “Me and my family know the agony of waiting for a donor. Let your family know when you want to be a donor.”

The even greater surprise was after the recording concluded, Davis walked into the room, belting out, “Everything’s gonna be al-riiiiiiight.”

Hugs, kisses, some tears and posing for many photos followed her entrance. They’ve known each other for 20 years.

“You’re looking so good,” Davis said to Whitall as they embraced.

He responded, “What a great surprise.”

As they posed for photos, Owens said, “We have a Thornetta sandwich.”

Davis’ sister, Felicia, was wheeled into the room with an oxygen tube in her nose. She broke down crying briefly when addressing Owens.

“I’m waiting for someone like you,” she said.

April is National Donate Life Month, and Tuesday’s event was part of an ongoing celebration of 50 years of transplants at the Henry Ford Transplant Institute, as well as the recent launch of the Henry Ford Center for Living Donation.

The Henry Ford Transplant Institute intends to change that, with the creation of the ground-breaking Center for Living Donation, led by Henry Ford kidney transplant surgeon Dr. Jason Denny. He said 50 percent of live donors are non-blood relatives.

“Having a live kidney donor is one of the single best things a person can have when they have end-stage kidney disease,” Denny said.

Asked how Whitall is doing, Denny said, “He’s awesome. He looks good and has put on weight. Medically and socially, he’s doing great.”

To join the organ donor registry, visit For more information on living donation, visit