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Vol. 56, No. 2 • January 2019 • .pdf version
Kidney donor Downey is Most Courageous
Taking a break from organizing a closet, Ericka Downey opened an article on her phone that detailed basketball coach Billy Gillispie's need for a kidney transplant.
The article moved Downey so much, she felt an intense need to help. At first, she shared on social media, hoping that someone who saw it would be compelled to donate.
"I got, like, seven retweets," she said.
She thought and prayed and talked to her husband. Then she logged onto the Mayo Clinic web site and registered herself as a potential kidney donor for Gillispie, a former head coach at UTEP, Texas A&M, Kentucky and Texas Tech. That was a Saturday. On Monday, she called the hospital eager to proceed.
In April, she underwent surgery to give one of her kidneys to a coach she had never met before her decision.
What was it about Gillispie's story that urged Downey to act so selflessly? Most of us see at least a story a day that's sad or troublesome and wish that the subject of the article somehow will find help. Then we move on, the story replaced in our minds with another heavy item of news or our own busy lives.
But Downey couldn't forget.
For that reason, Downey is the 2019 USBWA recipient of the Most Courageous Award.
Downey isn't sure exactly what motivated her. Some of it was the strong ties she feels to the college basketball community. Her husband Mark coached at nine schools as an assistant or head coach before being hired as the head coach at Northeastern State in Tahlequah, Okla., in April 2017.
She said she also was moved by her faith. And she had seen what kidney failure can do to a person when her father-in-law died of renal disease after spending the final years of his life on dialysis.
"When I read the story, I felt a pull or a tug," she said. "We didn't know how far it would go. It was really just saying, yes, I feel like I need to do something."
A month after Downey read the Dallas Morning News story about Gillispie, they got in touch via text. An assistant coach had reached out to Downey after seeing her pleas for help for Gillispie in case she wasn't a match – or for anyone considering there are more than 100,000 people on a kidney waiting list often for a median wait time of 3.6 years according to the National Kidney Foundation.
Gillispie, now coaching at Ranger College in Texas, wanted to thank her. They began talking frequently. She found out on Feb. 19 that she was a match with Gillispie. More testing was needed, requiring a three-day stay at the Mayo Clinic, but all results showed she could donate to him."He was appreciative of my effort before the gift," Downey said. "(He would say,) 'I understand going through this for a loved one, a mom or dad, brother or sister. We're complete strangers. You don't even know me.' The basketball tie is what ties us together. It's hard to explain that to people who aren't in trenches."
The Downeys host an annual dinner at the Final Four. That's where she met Gillispie for the first time in San Antonio last year.
"It was emotional," she said. "It just felt like he's family. It was just meeting a long lost friend."
In late April 2018, they were back in Minnesota at the Mayo Clinic for the transplant. Her kidney worked well in Gillispie, who she said took a four-mile walk the first day after the transplant in the hospital.
Downey had planned to walk to his room after the surgeries. But her blood pressure dropped and she collapsed in the hallway. She said doctors told her the transplant surgery can be much harder on a donor, whose body is being weakened, than a recipient, whose body is being repaired in the process.
"I'm laying there defeated," she said. "You get in your head. 'Am I being soft? What's wrong with me? He's this hard-nosed basketball coach. What's he going to think of me?'"
She eventually got back to full strength in about a month and said she feels no limitations in life. "My life is as busy and hectic as before," Downey said.
After his recovery, Gillispie returned to coaching. The families have remained close, spending time together on Christmas Eve.
"Kentucky fans and Texas Tech fans don't have nice things to say about him," she said. "The best thing is the relationship I have with him and really seeing who he is. He's a good person and good man and really good basketball coach, too."
Downey hopes those who hear about her kidney donation will be moved to do the same. Just like she was the day she read the article about Gillispie.
"It's such a small price to pay to let someone live their best life," she said.
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