April is National Donate Life Month, so it’s quite fitting that on April 24, 2023, Ericka Downey will celebrate her five-year anniversary of being a living kidney donor. This month and every month, help spread the word about the need and opportunity for living kidney donors.
Ericka Downey grew up in the small town of Ratcliff, Arkansas. Her grandparents adopted her and her older brother when she was in kindergarten. She remembers her childhood as a simple time when she didn’t have a lot, but also didn’t want for anything. Both deceased now, her grandparents were very strong in their faith and the family attended church three times a week. Ericka describes her grandmother as a selfless person with a servant heart, and her grandfather was a deacon at their church. Ericka says she was taught to hear God’s voice in her life, and that played a big part in her decision to become a living kidney donor.
A Strong Urge to Help
Known for being spontaneous, Ericka first started thinking about donating one of her kidneys on a quiet Saturday in December 2017. She was a busy working mom with two boys and the wife of a college basketball coach living in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Her work in medical device sales kept her on the road a lot, but on this particular weekend, she was home attempting to clean out her bedroom closet. Taking a break from housework, she sat on her closet floor and started scrolling through social media. Ericka clicked on a news article that caught her eye on Twitter by the Dallas Morning News about Billy Gillispie, a well-known college basketball coach in Texas, who needed an “urgent” kidney transplant.
According to the article, Gillispie’s kidneys failed due to uncontrolled chronic high blood pressure. As Ericka read the story, she knew immediately that she wanted to do whatever she could do to help. Ericka did not know Coach Gillispie personally, yet she felt compelled to do something.
For the rest of that weekend, Ericka poured herself into research and prayed about it. She wanted to learn as much as she could about kidney transplantation and organ donation. What did kidney donation look like? What was the recovery? She also looked at the Mayo Clinic’s website, where the article had said Gillispie would receive his medical care.
The next day after church, Ericka told her husband about the news article and asked him if he knew Coach Gillispie since they were both college basketball coaches. He did know him, but many years had gone by and they had lost touch. Ericka then expressed her desire to help and see if she could become his kidney donor. Her husband laughed and said that she was crazy and probably wouldn’t be a match, but also said if she felt like that is what God was telling her to do, then he would support her.
Becoming a Living Kidney Donor
After that conversation with her husband, Ericka decided to take the next steps of filling out the online healthcare questionnaire on the Mayo Clinic’s web page for becoming a living kidney donor. However, since she did not know Gillispie, the form was difficult to fill out. One of the questions asked if she knew the recipient. Ericka entered no. In fact, she did not even know his full name... was it just Billy Gillispie or was it William? “It felt like a puzzle trying to make it all happen,” Ericka said.
In late January, Ericka was on a work trip in Vegas when Gillispie’s former assistant reached out to her. He had told Coach Gillispie about what she was doing on social media to help him and wanted to thank her. Then, he put her in touch with Gillispie directly. The two communicated a few times, and she got the details needed for her to successfully complete an application to be tested as his living donor.
Once Ericka was officially listed as a donor and Gillispie was officially on the transplant wait list with the Mayo Clinic, Ericka received a blood kit to bring to her local lab to complete and mail back. By mid-February, results were in, and they revealed that she was a perfect match for antibodies and antigens. The Mayo Clinic then asked her to come in to do three days of extensive testing onsite. The last week in March (National Kidney Month), she completed the testing at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. While in Minnesota, Ericka met a woman at a restaurant near the clinic who was there for her 27-year kidney transplant checkup. That woman made quite an impression on her. Ericka thought, “If that is something I can do, by donating my kidney, then that is pretty awesome.”
After completing all the required testing, Ericka flew directly to meet her family at the Final Four in San Antonio, Texas. Billy Gillispie was also there.
During the festivities, Ericka and Billy met in person for the first time. On the exact day they met, the Mayo Clinic called and gave the green light for the transplant. Both Ericka’s and Billy’s patient advocate teams had approved the transplant!
Surgery was scheduled, and Ericka donated her kidney to Billy on April 24, 2018. Billy never had to go on dialysis treatment due to Ericka’s heartfelt donation. Ericka says God made this miracle happen.
As a living donor, Ericka says she feels great. She missed very little work and was able to start jogging again just two weeks post-surgery. She encourages others to listen to their hearts when they are pulled to give to others. In 2020, post-transplant, Ericka was proud to introduce Billy Gillispie at the press conference where he accepted a Division 1 coaching position again.