In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

May 3, 2018

News Story Prompts Woman to Donate Kidney to Basketball Coach Billy Gillispie

By In the Loop

When Ericka Downey saw a tweet about men’s college basketball coach Billy Gillispie being in desperate need of a kidney transplant, she knew she needed to act.

When Ericka Downey saw a tweet about college basketball coach Billy Gillispie needing a kidney transplant, she was determined to find him a donor. She didn't have to go far.

Ericka Downey never envisioned meeting Billy Gillispie like this. Her emotions started to swell as her husband, Mark, led the former Texas A&M and Kentucky men's basketball coach to meet her in a crowded room during last month's Final Four weekend. Coach Gillispie cracked first. "I'm going to start crying," he said, as USA Today reports.

Ericka waved her two young sons over to meet the coach, the paper reports. "He's the guy I'm giving my kidney to," she told them.

The Dallas Morning News reports that this past December, Ericka came across a news story on Twitter about Coach Gillispie being in desperate need of a kidney transplant. After reading the story, Ericka told her husband, the head basketball coach at Northeastern State, about the story. Mark Downey has known Gillispie for years. "I was watching TV, and she came and nonchalantly started talking about Billy," he tells the paper. "And then told me he was in renal failure."

Ericka also told her husband that she'd retweeted Billy's story and was determined to do whatever she could to raise awareness of his situation and find him a donor. She then "strongly encouraged" Mark to do the same, according to the Dallas Morning News. "She's a woman of big ideas," he tells the paper.

And of a big heart, it seems. The Morning News reports that when no other potential donors began to emerge, Ericka's search turned to herself — a gesture that, while noble, Mark didn't expect to go far. "I kind of thought that it wouldn't go past the first couple of tests," he tells the paper. "But over time it kept going and kept going. And I can't argue with her reasoning. She's not going to listen to me, anyway, if I do."

Ericka did listen to staff at Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus, who told her all signs pointed toward her being a match for Coach Gillispie.

Further testing confirmed that Ericka was a match. That set the stage for their second meeting, at Mayo Clinic, where surgeons removed Ericka's left kidney and transplanted it into Gillispie. "Out of surgery. Everything went great," Ericka tweeted after the procedure. And she tells the Dallas Morning News, "I'm excited about the future — and giving him a much longer future."

Coach Gillispie says he doesn't take the gesture lightly. "You can't take your health for granted," he tells the paper. "I've done that for too many years of my life, but I won't anymore."

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Tags: Kidney transplant, Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Mayo Clinic Transplant Center, Patient Stories, renal failure

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