(Editor’s Note: This article by Michael Grant of the Louisville Courier Journal was published with permission.)
PIKEVILLE, Ky. — It should have been the best of times for Kelly Wells.
The University of Pikeville basketball coach made the Oct. 31 road trip to the University of Louisville with his 10-year-old daughter Kaylee in tow. His NAIA team was playing an exhibition game against the No.2-ranked Cardinals at the KFC Yum! Center.
Plus, the Pikeville Bears would receive a $25,000 check from Uof L, a big help in funding Pikeville’s $2 million annual athletic department budget.
But on game day, Wells began experiencing discomfort in his stomach that progressively worsened. Hours before tip-off there was blood in his urine and pain in the left side of his abdomen.
That’s where his transplanted kidney is — the one donated to him by his wife in 2004 — and he wondered, was it a kidney rejection, or something worse?
The worry didn’t stop the son of a coach from doing what he has always done — he coached. But during warm-ups, he turned to Elisha Justice, a Pikeville guard and University of Louisville transfer who was sidelined with a knee injury.
“He asked me to say a prayer for him,” Justice said. “He didn’t need to be at that game because of the way he was feeling. But Coach Wells, he puts the team first. He wasn’t about to leave. He never quit on us. And right after that game, he had to go.”
Immediately after Pikeville lost 93-57, Wells was driven by the police to Jewish Hospital.
“This was supposed to be fun,” said the 41-year-old who led the Bears to the 2011 NAIA national championship. “But it was just a miserable night for me.”
Justice’s prayers were answered, because it was not a rejection. Wells was told that the pain and bleeding were likely the result of an earlier biopsy on his transplanted kidney. He might have had an infection, and a mass was discovered on his native right kidney, which will be removed in the spring.
All good news for now, but a transplanted kidney doesn’t last forever. Wells was told in 2004 that the expiration date would be 15 to 20 years, so the day will come when he will need another kidney.
“In a perfect world I’d love to be healthy until the day I pass away,” he said. “This is who I am. This is the problem I have. You could either look at it negatively or look at it as something we’re going to manage. I could be paranoid about it, worry about it, but that’s not going to make it any better.”
Basketball and life
Wells’ story revolves around basketball — it’s how he was diagnosed with a disease causing his kidneys to fail, and it’s how he met his wife, who saved his life.
Wells’ father, Mickey, played basketball at Morehead State and later started the women’s basketball program there. The young Wells starred at Rowan County High School and signed with the University of Tulsa before transferring to Morehead.
While at Morehead, he encountered Shawne Marcum, who played for the women’s basketball team. The two had to give a speech to West Carter Middle School children as part of a DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) event.
Marcum, a nervous freshman from West Virginia, had no idea what she was going to say but struck up a conversation with Wells, a junior who had jotted down speech notes on index cards.
“That was pretty impressive,” Shawne Marcum Wells recalled. “We started hanging out. It progressed to us hanging out more.”
In his senior year, Wells was diagnosed with IgA nephropathy, also known as Berger’s disease, during a routine preseason physical. According to Dr. Michael Marvin, the director of transplantation at Jewish Hospital and associate professor of surgery at the University of Louisville, IgA nephropathy is a disease where the IgA antibody (a protein that helps the body fight infections) gets deposited in a part of the kidney that interferes with its function and sometimes leads to kidney failure.
Though he didn’t feel ill at the time, doctors told him he shouldn’t play basketball.
“They said ‘we don’t know what fatigue and exercise does to this disease,’” Wells said. “They said there’s no study because this is usually something that happens to the older generation.”
Wells was originally ruled medically ineligible for the 1994-95 season but after seeking a second opinion at the Cleveland Clinic, decided to play. Then, in Morehead’s second exhibition game, he suffered a left ACL tear.
Season over. Career over.
Wells became a student assistant, and after he left Morehead was immediately hired as Marion County High School’s basketball coach. Wells and Marcum continued to date and were engaged during a 1996 road trip to St. Augustine, Fla.
While at a restaurant, a waitress put the ring on a plate in front of a surprised Shawne Marcum.
“Kelly got down on one knee,” Shawne Marcum Wells said. “There was a family beside us, and their grandparents were celebrating their 50th anniversary. They shared a piece of cake with us. It was really sweet.”
They were married the following year.
Though the Wellses said they didn’t pay much attention to Kelly’s condition outside of regular checkups, the disease progressed.
By the 2003-04 season it became clear that he needed a new kidney. Wells had just coached Mason County High to the 2003 state championship, and the team was the state runner-up the following season.
The symptoms were similar to the flu. Wells often felt fatigued and vomited frequently but he never missed a day of work or a game. Still, halfway through the ‘03-04 season he realized he would either have to go on dialysis or get a transplant immediately.
“I was fearful,” Wells said. “The good thing is that I was always into something. I had basketball. I had teaching. I had family responsibilities. I was always on the go. When that season ended I knew what the next step was. I wanted that season to go on as long as it could.”
The next step was to find a donor. After the state tournament, four relatives were tested to see if anyone was a match. All were, and Kelly and Shawne share the same blood type: O positive.
Before Shawne Marcum Wells knew the results, she prayed and talked with her mother.
“I had a peace that God was going to work it out,” she said. “I called my mom and told her that I feel like I’m going to be the one who is going to be able to help Kelly when he needs it. I felt like if we were a match, then that’s what God’s plan is. After that, I wasn’t nervous and I wasn’t scared.”
Wells said his wife’s gift made him feel a mixture of overwhelming appreciation and some guilt.
“That was a tough, tough conversation,” he said. “Asking for something of that nature is beyond my understanding. To have someone volunteer made it a humbling experience. Being a coach, you’re used to solving problems and not creating problems. I couldn’t solve this one.”
The transplant took place in spring 2004 at the University of Cincinnati Hospital, and the new kidney worked immediately.
Since 2004 they have had a second child — their son Mason is 6 years old — and Shawne Marcum Wells has run five half-marathons since the transplant.
Kelly Wells takes seven medications daily and is on a renal- and heart-healthy diet, which means lots of oatmeal and fruit. For Thanksgiving, he dined on grilled chicken instead of turkey.
“The holidays are miserable,” he said with a laugh.
Wells said he had been fairly healthy until before the start of this basketball season.
He had a biopsy, was treated with steroids and his anti-rejection medication was changed. He then had another scare the night of the Uof L game. Wells, who had never missed coaching a game before, was out for three games while at Jewish Hospital.
The weeklong stay at the hospital made him think about the future.
According to Marvin, 50 percent of living-donor kidneys last longer than 21 years. He said it can be hard to predict when a new kidney will be needed.
“It really depends on how well the patient takes their medicine and the other medical conditions that might develop,” he said.
Because of their experience, the Wells speak frequently about the value of organ donation and are involved in Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates (KODA). Shawne Marcum Wells said if the transplanted kidney lasts 15 years “we’ll be happy.”
With her voice cracking slightly, she turned to her husband and said: “I tend to think that we’re lucky. There are people who have to deal with diseases that are life-threatening. Their diagnosis is grim. … We’re not facing something that can’t be overcome. And we will, won’t we?”
(Reporter Michael Grant can be reached at (502) 582-4069.)
Copyright The Courier Journal
(Note: Shawne Marcum Wells played basketball at Burch High School and was an all-state selection and played on a state championship team for the Lady Bulldogs.)