Giving One for The Team: Tom Walter Makes Sacrifice
Feb. 8, 2011
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - Wake Forest's slogan for the baseball team in 2011 is "What are you willing to sacrifice to help make this team better?"
Head coach Tom Walter's intent was to have his players thinking about sacrifice bunts, moving runners over, and giving up personal glory to help the Demon Deacons improve as a team.
But what Walter chose to sacrifice is greater than simply hanging in on a curve ball and taking one for the team.
Walter gave up a kidney.
In a procedure performed Monday (Feb. 7) at the Emory Transplant Center in Atlanta, Walter had one of his kidneys removed and donated to Kevin Jordan, a freshman member of the Wake Forest baseball team.
Dr. Kenneth Newell, the lead surgeon on the team that removed Walter's kidney, was pleased with the procedures.
"Both surgeries went very well," said Dr. Newell. "We are pleased with how each patient is progressing. We expect each will recover fully."
Jordan suffers from ANCA vasculitis, a type of autoimmune swelling caused by autoantibodies. The immune system produces normal antibodies to fight infection in the body. However, an autoantibody is an abnormal antibody that attacks a person's own cells. ANCA stands for Anti-Neutrophil Cytoplasmic Autoantibody and when these autoantibodies are present in the kidneys, it causes a leaking of blood and protein into the urine and eventually results in kidney failure.
Jordan was initially diagnosed with ANCA vasculitis in April of 2010. An all-city baseball player in Columbus, Ga., Jordan had signed a National Letter of Intent to attend Wake Forest in November, 2009, prior to his senior season. Jordan was one of the first prospects that Walter contacted after being hired as Wake Forest's head coach in June, 2009. That October, Jordan finished second in the Bo Jackson 5-Tool Championship, (http://www.perfectgame.org/Articles/View.aspx?article=4814) an event held at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla. that measures a player's ability to hit, hit with power, run, throw and field. Wagner Mateo of the Dominican Republic won the event and signed a $500,000 free agent contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Jordan finished second overall to Mateo and won the home run portion of the competition with six homers. He signed with Wake Forest just weeks later.
"Kevin is one of the most highly touted players in the country," said Walter at the time that Jordan signed. "He possesses game-changing speed and plus power. He is the kind of offensive talent that opposing coaches have to manage around. He will be an impact player from the moment he sets foot on campus." Jordan's decision to sign with Wake Forest was the result of a solid recruiting effort by Walter and his coaching staff. "We got a meeting with Coach Walter and one of the things we did, like everybody does, is go to the internet and look up (his) name and get some background," said Keith Jordan, Kevin's father. "I think the two things that really, really sold us on Coach (Walter) and Wake Forest, was when we met him, you can look a person in the eye and see if they really mean what they say and say what they mean. You could see that in him. Also, when we went to the internet and saw some of the things that happened in New Orleans and how he worked with the team and the players and the comments that were coming back from some of the people. But, again, the third was just about Wake Forest itself. The background, the family-oriented atmosphere. We really felt good when we went to the school. I don't think we had that many long conversations but they were probably the most meaningful conversations that you can have. My wife was almost sold immediately. Those things really played an important part of our decision and Kevin's decision-making."
Donating a kidney was not Walter's first experience with adversity. In August, 2005, Walter welcomed a 22-member recruiting class as he and his staff sought to rebuild the University of New Orleans baseball program. Five days later Hurricane Katrina raced through Louisiana and Mississippi, leaving a path of destruction.
With so many brand new team members, Walter and his staff paired up each player, made sure they had a location to evacuate to, and then crossed their fingers that everybody would arrive safely.
"(The players) were literally driving away in cars not knowing each other, having met each other just five days ago," recounted Walter. "I'm trying to call everybody to make sure they're on the road. It was a matter of going up and down the roster and checking names off just to make sure everybody was out of town and accounted for."
Eventually, Walter and his team regrouped in Las Cruces, New Mexico on the campus of New Mexico State University where they spent the fall semester attending class and practicing before returning to New Orleans in the spring. That recruiting class formed the nucleus of UNO's back-to-back NCAA Regional teams in 2007 and 2008.
During the winter of 2010, Jordan was unable to shake the effects of the flu. After losing 20 pounds off his 6-1, 185-pound frame, he was referred to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, a roughly two hour trip from Columbus. Doctors at Emory found that Jordan's kidney was functioning at only 15 to 20 percent of its normal ability. Kevin continued playing baseball though he and his family knew he wasn't quite the same player he had been just months earlier when he won the 5-Tool Championship.
"Kevin is one of those types of person who really like to play ball, compete, be a part of a team, be involved," said Keith Jordan. "The biggest part to him was he knew he wasn't up to where he was in, let's say, October of last year (2009). That hardest part was not knowing why. The big thing in going back and forth to doctors here in Columbus and trying to figure out, trying to get some information, trying to understand, trying to know what to do. He didn't do quite as well as he had done in the early years, but they got into the playoffs and he was struggling but still working and trying to come back. He actually gained some of (his weight) back around the first of April (2010) but you knew something just wasn't right and that was the key to us going out and trying to find out what caused it and why."
Jordan's talent was still strong enough that the New York Yankees drafted him in the 19th round of the 2010 Major League Baseball Draft. But before long, he found himself on dialysis three days week. And then it was time to report to Wake Forest for the start of the fall semester. Despite the dialysis, Kevin never wavered in his decision to attend Wake Forest.
"The thing he told us, because as parents we're always trying to look out for his best interests, and (his) mother is always trying to make sure `is this what you want to do?'" said Keith Jordan. "His focus was `I want to live as normal a life as I can. I've committed to the school and I want to do whatever I can to live up to that commitment. I want to play ball, I want to go to Wake Forest, I've made that decision.' "
Even before classes began on August 25, Jordan and his family visited Dr. Barry Freedman at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. Walter and baseball athletic trainer Jeff Strahm accompanied the family to the appointment.
"We had been communicating with the Jordans last spring and through the summer," said Walter. "But I had no idea of the extent of Kevin's condition until that doctor's appointment. Kevin was meeting with Dr. Freedman for the first time and I went to that meeting. Five minutes into that, listening to Dr. Freedman speak, I was like `Oh My God!' I had no idea what Kevin had been going through over the course of the summer and the spring. It just gave me a whole new perspective on everything. That's when the reality, the gravity of the situation hit me. Until that doctor's appointment, I just had no idea."
Dr. Freedman told the family that Kevin's kidney function had fallen to just eight percent of its normal capacity. Soon, the decision was made to increase the dialysis from three times a week to every day. Rather than visiting a dialysis center, Kevin, along with Strahm, were taught how to self-administer the dialysis. A catheter in Kevin's chest was moved to his stomach to facilitate the daily dialysis. After a full day of class, Kevin would hook-up the dialysis machine every night at 11 p.m. He would stay connected until 8 a.m. the next morning.
Doctors told Kevin that a kidney transplant was the next step. Testing began on members of the Jordan family to see if anybody was a match.
"I can tell you my wife (was) tested," said Keith Jordan. "I have high blood pressure so that knocked me out right off the bat. His brother was tested and was not able to do it."
During the fall, Walter told Keith Jordan that he would be willing to go through compatibility testing to see if he was a match.
"The last person they tested was his brother and I think they found out sometime in mid-December that the brother wasn't going to be a match," said Walter. "As soon as I found that out, Mr. Jordan and I were in contact and he said `Well, Coach if you're still willing.' I said `Absolutely, just tell me what I need to do'. He gave me the phone number of the living donor coordinator here in Winston-Salem. I called her immediately and set up my appointment to come in and get my blood work done. "
Walter underwent the initial test on Dec. 20, 2010 when a sample of his blood and Kevin's blood were placed in a Petri Dish to make sure they were compatible. Further testing of Walter took place at Emory in January and included a chest x-ray, CT scan and dye-injection test during a two-day stay at the hospital. That was followed by more testing which included testing Walter's blood for its clotting ability and having the coach wear a blood pressure monitor for 24 hours.
On January 28, the first day of spring practice, Walter was at Gene Hooks Field at Wake Forest University Baseball Park when his cell phone rang.
"I found out during practice," said Walter. "I never carry my cell phone with me at practice because I just don't think it's right. We were about a half hour into practice when I got that call. I couldn't even make the requisite phone calls because we needed to finish practice. After I got that call, I sent a quick e-mail to Mr. Jordan and to Dr. Freedman, basically just `APPROVED!' with exclamation points after it. I told them I was good to go and they had given me a surgery date of February 7. At that point I hadn't told the team or even talked to Ron Wellman about it and, again, I certainly wasn't going to make the final decision until talking to both of those parties. Not that I anticipated a problem. Everybody was in full support the whole time."
Walter waited until Monday, January 31 before telling the team of his decision.
"It was stunned silence followed by a round of applause," said Walter. "A couple guys came up. Austin Stadler, our captain being one of them, came up and shook my hand. The guys have been great. They've been unbelievable. We have a classy bunch of kids here. I didn't expect anybody to have any issues with this. They've been great with Kevin. And Kevin's been great with them. I know the guys ask me about Kevin all the time and how he's doing. They check his Facebook page and things like that to make sure he's doing okay. We've got a pretty good group. (We are) very fortunate to have the character young men that we have here at Wake Forest."
Keith Jordan broke the news to Kevin and spoke of his reaction.
"The sheer happiness . . . we knew that our prayers had been answered," said Keith Jordan. "Kevin just, you could just imagine the smile on his face that maybe, all of this nighttime dialysis and medicine, and the shots he's having to take, and maybe all of this would be behind him a little bit. Of course, when you get a kidney, you still have to take medicine but it's nowhere near what you have to take today. But you can't imagine the joy and happiness and thankfulness we give for Coach Walter. It's just a blessing that we've received. We have to take it from there and move forward."
Coming to the decision to donate his kidney was not a difficult one for Walter.
"First and foremost, Kevin even showing up on our campus I thought was a courageous act on his part, certainly far more courageous than anything I'm doing," said Walter "For him to be a freshman in college, not knowing anybody on campus, and having to be in a room on dialysis, I think just took an incredible . . . the word I keep coming back to is courage. When we recruit our guys, we talk about family and we talk about making sacrifices for one another, for our teammates. So, it's something we take very seriously. And I think this is something anybody would do for a family member. So long as I had the support of my family, which I have had great support from them, the support of (athletic director) Ron Wellman and Wake Forest University. And they have been nothing but great. Ron was very receptive to this. And my team. Those were the three factors. Once I had the support of my family, Wake Forest and Ron Wellman and my players, it was a no-brainer."
"I would like to just again express my thanks to Coach Walter and the Wake Forest staff and also the baseball players themselves," said Keith Jordan. "I will echo what Coach Walter said that this is a really great, unique atmosphere to be in. The word family really means something to Wake Forest. We know we've made some great decisions to get (Kevin) to this point."
The procedure started early Monday morning with a surgical team led by Dr. Kenneth Newell removing Walter's kidney. Dr. Allan Kirk was the lead surgeon on the team that transplanted the kidney to Kevin.
While many will marvel at the sacrifice Walter is making, the coach downplays his role.
"I would do anything to help any one of my players and any one of my family members," said Walter. "Anything that I could do in my power that I could do to give them a better quality of life, is something I want to do. Maybe it's something as little as helping mentor them in their academic pursuits or help them choose a major, or something of a greater magnitude like this. But my number one priorities in life are my family and my team and I will do anything to help any one of those people."
Recovery for both donor and recipient will take several months, but both are looking forward to returning to a normal life.
"I think it will be two months before I'm quote-unquote normal again," said Walter. "Personally, I'm looking at running as my stress relief and my time to think and sort through some of the things in my head, like line-up decisions and things like that. I'll be looking forward to that first time when I can get out there and run again and that looks like it will be about two months."
For Kevin, the timeline for his recovery is similar.
"What they're saying is possibly in six to eight weeks he can start swinging a bat and maybe in a little after eight weeks he can start doing a little more work," said Keith Jordan. "Our expectation is that in June we want him back in summer school, getting ready for the fall semester. But again, we're going to have to go step by step and see if it all works out. We'll be working with Coach Walter and Dr. Freedman at Wake (Forest University Baptist Medical Center) to make sure we're doing what's right for Kevin."
Walter sought out the advice of other organ donors in order to better anticipate what his recovery would be like.
"The person I talked to who was great was Coach (Dennis) Womack, the former UVA (Virginia) baseball coach who had recently donated a kidney to a family member," said Walter. "He was a great resource for me because I was able to ask him coaching-specific questions and he obviously, having just recently been through it, he's a couple of months ahead of where I am, but he knows the rigors of the job and what I do on a day-to-day basis. It put my mind at ease talking to him because I am going to be able to be involved, although not throwing batting practice, hitting fungoes or coaching third, but I can certainly be involved. The biggest thing, from what he tells me, that I'm going to fight is fatigue. The doctor told me this as well. Most days I'll get up and feel great in the morning and four hours later, I won't be able to keep my eyes open. So that's the biggest thing I'm going to fight. Fortunately, the Wake Forest people have provided me with a couch in the office so I can take some cat naps!"
In Walter's immediate future, following the surgery, is the realization that the Deacons open the 2011 season in Baton Rouge with a three-game series against LSU. But he knows the team will be in good hands.
"I certainly don't see myself coaching third (base), and I certainly don't see myself hitting fungoes," said Walter. "And you're probably not going to see me charging out of the dugout to argue a call! But I'm going to be there, I can promise you that. I've got it set up where I might only miss two scrimmage dates here over the next two weeks. Hopefully I can even be in the stands and watch the last couple scrimmages so I'll be better able to make line-up decisions. The good news in all this is that I have a (great) staff . . . Dennis Healy (assistant coach/pitching coach), and this will be my eighth year with Dennis at various places and this will be my fourth year with Bill Cilento (assistant coach/hitting-infielders) at various places and, obviously, my second year with Grant Achilles (volunteer assistant coach). I have all the confidence in the world in those guys and their ability to make decisions and take care of the team. Through all this, the last thing I wanted to do was jeopardize any chance of success for the other 34 guys on the team for the sake of Kevin. And at no point do I feel that their well-being is in jeopardy. Our assistant coaches are great and they've got a great handle on our team and what needs to be done. I'll do as much as I can down there but I'm also very confident that if there are things I can't do, those tasks are in great hands."
"Certainly, the best-case scenario is that Kevin and I just lead a normal life," said Walter. "For Kevin's sake, I think that's the first goal, that Kevin can just have a normal life. Forget the baseball part of it for now. If he gets back on the field, that's going to be the best story of all. That's when (the media) are going to be calling back for another press conference, because that's going to be the great story, when he makes it back to the playing field. But, take that aside, just him having a normal life, where he can be a normal college student and not be hooked up to a dialysis machine from 11 o'clock at night to eight in the morning every night and just be a normal freshman. The same thing for me, that I can do all the things that I've been able to do my whole life, all the things I enjoy doing. Go for a run, or play with my kids, or play a round of golf, or coach third base and hit fungoes. Those are basically the five things I love to do. Hopefully getting back to that as quickly as possible. Certainly, the downside, you don't like to think of those things a lot but with any surgery there's obviously risks. Then, certainly, down the line, the risks on my end would be that, I might have something happen to my one kidney and I would be left with none. That's not something that's even on my radar screen. I'm not worried about that. You can't plan for that, that's like telling yourself you're not going to leave the house because you might get hit by a car."
In the case of the 2011 Demon Deacons, Tom Walter has already answered the biggest question. He has shown what he is willing to sacrifice in order to make Wake Forest University better. And not just on the baseball field.