Patient Stories

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask: The Search for a Kidney Donor

Feb. 9, 2022

In desperate need of a kidney transplant, Marcus Edwards creates sign at Chicago Bears game that leads to a viral moment and his donor.

As the new year arrived, 51-year-old Marcus Edwards reflected back on what was a lifesaving year in 2021. Marcus found out he was in kidney failure three years earlier, and in 2021, he had a transplant that saved his life and allowed him to start a new chapter with his family.

But the road to his October 2021 transplant was rather unique. It all started at a Chicago Bears game on a cold Nov. 10, 2019. A surprise trip to the game would lead to a viral moment that ultimately led to his kidney donor—someone he would never have met otherwise.

Discovering Kidney Failure

A native of Jeffersonville, Indiana, a small town along the Ohio River just north of Louisville, Kentucky, Marcus worked for Ford Motor Company for 22 years. For the last 12 years, he has been a union representative. By his side are his wife, Shantel, and his four children: Dezirae, Ciera, Alston and Marcus Jr. Family has always been a huge part of his life—he even coached his boys up until he got sick.

“I’ve always been involved in my kids’ lives,” Marcus said. “They are all athletes. The girls are in the band and color guard, Alston is a swimmer and track runner, and Marcus Jr. does football, basketball and baseball.”

No matter how busy everyone gets, the Edwards family always makes time to get together, whether it be having meals, going on vacations or even studying together.

“I’d always rather be with my family. We spend a lot of time together,” said Marcus.

One of Marcus’ favorite family activities is their annual camping trip. Around 40members of the family travel to Atlanta, Georgia, and take up nearly the entire campsite. Each year, they have traveled to a different campsite to enjoy their time together.

The annual camping trip – and many other trips – had to be put on hold after Marcus got sick.

Back in 1994 at 24 years old, Marcus discovered he was diabetic—a condition that runs in his family. Before this, he didn’t have any issues with his health, as h worked out a lot and played sports. But in recent years, he’s developed issues from his diabetes, including kidney failure.

“I didn’t really have any major issues,” Marcus explained. “Did I control my issues the best? No. Because when you are feeling good, you don’t realize anything else could be wrong. Otherwise, I was healthy. I was good.”

Marcus first noticed something was wrong in 2019, when he was preparing for a vacation to St. Louis, Missouri, to see Alston in a swim meet. Before the trip, he went to his primary care physician to have his normal checkups done. His doctor noticed that his potassium levels were high and referred him to the hospital to have additional testing done. His results came back normal, so he went ahead with his trip to St. Louis.

Following the St. Louis trip, Marcus then had to fly to Florida for a work trip. At the beginning of the trip, he felt fine, but as the trip wore on, he began to feel a drag.

“I thought maybe it was from traveling too much. I really didn’t know,” Marcus said. “I felt like I had a really bad case of the flu. I didn’t leave my hotel room after that.”

Marcus’ condition continued to decline. By the end of that business trip, he could barely walk and had to be transported through the airport by wheelchair. He went back to the hospital as soon as he got back, and on June 1, 2019, he was diagnosed with acute kidney failure.

Acute kidney failure occurs when the kidneys are suddenly unable to filter waste products from the blood. Marcus started dialysis, which helps to remove excess waste and fluid from the blood.

Although the rapid change in his condition was stunning, it was not a surprise that it was his kidneys. His grandmother was on dialysis up until her death in 2000.

Dialysis improved his kidney function at times, but then his kidneys would fail again. In order to receive a kidney transplant, he needed to be on dialysis for a certain length of time, and his transplant journey began.

Spreading the Word Through Social Media

Marcus is a lifelong fan of the Chicago Bears, one of the oldest professional football teams in the country. After months of stress and many cancelled activities, Shantel wanted to do something special for Marcus, and she purchased tickets for an upcoming Bears game versus the Detroit Lions.

“It was September 2019 when the football season was starting and I was on machines for my dialysis. We hadn’t done anything all year, so we decided to go to the game,” Marcus explained.

Shantel got tickets for Marcus on the 50-yard line—a prime view for the game. They made the roughly 270-mile trip to Chicago, Illinois, on Nov. 10, 2021. Before heading to their seats, they walked around Soldier Field and saw player statues, bobbleheads, old lockers and all of the other must-see parts of the Bears’ historic stadium. Marcus then came across a booth with markers and posters for fans to make their own signs.

An interesting idea crossed his mind—he walked over to the booth, picked up a green marker and wrote, “I NEED A KIDNEY” with his blood type in red and his phone number in black.

“This wasn’t a thought I had before coming to the stadium,” he said. “I think God directed me to make a sign.” Marcus took his sign and went down with Shantel to their seats.

During timeouts in the game, Marcus held up his sign to fans sitting in front of him and behind him. A couple sitting next to them asked if they could take a picture of him holding the sign and they posted the photo on social media. The game wrapped up – a Bears victory, 20-13 – and Marcus and Shantel made their way out of the stadium.

All of a sudden, Marcus’ phone began to ring … and ring … and ring. Hundreds of texts messages started coming through. Before they even made it back to their hotel, his phone died. People he didn’t even know were reaching out to him to see if they could be a donor match. What started as a spontaneous idea turned into a viral moment.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “The outpour of support and people wanting to help was amazing.”

Living Kidney Donation

To save Marcus’ life, he needed a kidney donation, which could come from a deceased donor or a living donor— as long as they were a match. Close family members and even complete strangers reached out to Marcus to see if they could help. Even his sister Kassondra went through the process of becoming a match.

The perfect match came from an unlikely source. After the Bears game, a local news station near Jeffersonville did a story on Marcus, and the segment aired a few weeks later on Thanksgiving.

One year later, the news station reran the story again on Thanksgiving. Jennifer Michaels, who doesn’t live far from Marcus, saw the segment re-air, and decided to go in for tests to determine if she was a match.

Turns out—she was. Despite having no relationship or connection to Marcus, she wanted to donate her kidney to him. Something came over her and made her want to donate.

“Our transplant program has many dedicated professionals who are passionate about promoting organ donation,” said Shimul A. Shah, MD, UC Health transplant surgeon, the James and Catherine Orr Endowed Chair in Liver Transplantation and professor in the Department of Surgery at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. “We would not be able to help as many patients as we do without our wonderful organ donors who give the gift of life.”

Discovering UC Health’s Kidney Transplant Program

Immediately after finding out that he needed a transplant, Marcus started treatment at a local health system close to his hometown. However, he wasn’t receiving the high-quality care he needed, so he decided to do some research and go to another health system not far from him: UC Health.

From the beginning, Marcus’ experience at UC Health was a night and day difference from where he was previously being treated. He met with transplant coordinators, cardiologists, nutritionists and the many others involved in UC Health’s multidisciplinary care. He got on to the waitlist at UC Health, and physicians assured him they would get him transplanted—they gave him hope.

“All of the team was great. I can’t express the feeling I had at UC Health,” said Marcus. “I had no anxiety and no anguish because the team was in constant contact with me. Everyone was so personable, too.”

The Gift of Life

One day, in September 2021, as he was getting his oil changed in his car, Marcus received a call from the UC Health Transplant team. They told him they had a donor match for him and that he would have his transplant on Oct. 18, and all he needed to do in the meantime is stay safe from COVID-19.

After years of hardship and struggle, he was finally going to have his life changed. Jennifer Michaels was about to give Marcus and his family hope – and the gift of life.

Despite his challenges, Marcus remained steadfast and persevered. He knew he had a lot to live for, andhis transplant would allow him to enjoy more time with his family and go on more vacations. He wanted to be able to walk his daughters down the aisle at their weddings, become a grandfather and just enjoy life.

Monday, Oct. 18 arrives, and Marcus and his family are staying in Cincinnati close to the UC Health Clifton Campus, ready for the one of the biggest moments in their lives. He came to UC Medical Center and had his transplant operation, where hours later he woke up in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit (SICU), with lots of support by his side to help him recover. Dr. Shah came in to tell him that the procedure went well.

Marcus recalls the recovery process being a challenge, as to be expected after a major procedure like a transplant, but he also remembers many members of his care team who stood by his side to make sure he had everything he needed to ensure his hospital stay was the best it could be. His care team made him feel like family and got to know him on a personal level.

“It is what we pledge in our nursing creed and values – to provide exceptional care and to advance the health of others,” said James Morrissey, RN, one of Marcus’ nurses in the SICU. “When medical professionals work cohesively as one, outcomes such as Mr. Edwards’ recovery are the final product. I solely do my job. The true heroes are those I work amongst.”

James credits the teamwork and goal of always putting patients and families first to why he succeeds in his role.

“This is why I enter the front doors of UC Medical Center – to ensure loved ones have a chance to make it back home to their families. Our dedicated hospital staff render care to patients on a revolving door basis, 24 hours a day, 360 days a year.”

Another nurse, Sarah Stevens, RN, has been a UC Health nurse since 2007 and has worked in the SICU since 2009, caring for many patients over that time. Sarah helped give Marcus his medications, went through his plan of care, spoke with his wife and monitored his vital signs, among many other things. She even kept an eye on his nutrition and made sure he ate only the things he and other transplant patients can have after their procedures.

“We did our job. Everyone played a role in him getting out of here,” Sarah explained. “Our unit works closely together, and knowing he remembered me by name makes me feel like I did a good job.”

After spending a few days at UC Medical Center recovering, Marcus was discharged and went back to Jeffersonville to reunite with his family. He continues to have visits with his care team at UC Health to ensure his new kidney is working properly.

“Mr. Edwards has recovered from his transplant and is doing well,” said Madison C. Cuffy, MD, MBA, UC Health transplant surgeon, director of kidney transplant and associate professor in the Department of Surgery at the UC College of Medicine. “His story is a testament to individual patients, as well as providers and staff with UC Health Transplant, who go above and beyond to ensure that individuals who are on dialysis receive an opportunity and ultimately obtain a lifesaving transplant.”

Before he left UC Medical Center, Marcus had a surprise visit. His donor, Jennifer, came down to see him. It was an emotional moment for them both, and words were not enough to express Marcus’ gratitude to Jennifer for the selfless act she made to save his life.

“I have a renewed feeling in life.”

Months have passed since Marcus’ transplant, and he feels great. The first thing he hopes to do once the COVID-19 pandemic tapers down is to go camping with his family. He is back to planning future trips and can watch his kids’ many activities.

“I have my life back. I’m ecstatic!” he said.

Moving forward, Marcus also wants to be a kidney transplant advocate and voice for organ donation. He was never afraid to ask for help throughout the journey, and his family did as much outreach as they could.

“When you die, you can’t take those organs with you,” Marcus explained. “Instead, you have a chance to save lives. You can give someone a second chance. It’s really important.”

Throughout the most difficult parts of his health journey, Marcus got frustrated. Why did he have to go through this? Despite volunteering, coaching his kids for free and even going to local shelters to feed the homeless, he wondered why God would make him go through this. Through this, he remained strong—something he feels is important for anyone out there who needs an organ donation.

“You can’t give up. You have to keep fighting,” he said. “There were times where I wanted to give up, but I kept fighting. If I can make a difference for even one person, I’ll do it.”

Despite the grueling journey, it was well worth it for Marcus. He had all the support he could ever ask for along the way to get through the most difficult part of his life. He remains grateful to all of the members of his care team who collaborated to give him all the hope he needed.

“They treated me as a person, not just as a patient,” Marcus said when referring to his team, specifically Dr. Shah and E. Steve Woodle, MD, UC Health physician, professor and the William A. Altemeier Chair in Surgery at the UC College of Medicine. Dr. Woodle was heavily involved early on in Marcus’ journey, ensuring him that UC Health would get him transplanted.

“It is wonderful stories like Mr. Edwards’ that show how our patients are finding new and creative ways to promote organ donation in their own way, which exponentially allows us to save more lives,” Dr. Shah said.

Marcus still has the original poster he made for that November 2019 Chicago Bears game, and he intends to get it framed as a moment of achievement. He looks forward to many more Bears games and other special moments with his family.

“Hope has gotten me here today,” he said. “There was a cure [for my condition]. There was a fix. You have to fight for it. If you don’t fight, you aren’t going to make it,  because this truly is a battle worth fighting for.”