Billy Key, Recipient
Kidney Recipient Lives Semper Gumby
Posted January 31, 2012
As a Coast Guard Academy recruiter and public affairs officer for the Coast Guard Auxiliary, Billy Key often teaches potential cadets the institution’s motto, Semper Paratus, meaning “always ready.” When doctors discovered he needed a kidney in 2001 because of renal scaring, Key had new appreciation for another Academy cadet phrase, Semper Gumby, meaning “always flexible.”
An avid outdoorsmen and cyclist, Key was hiking the Grand Canyon with his family in 2001 when he felt unusually fatigued and had constant headaches. “That’s what prompted me to go to the doctor,” he said.
His primary care physician originally thought he had an ulcer, but a nurse practitioner ordered blood work which discovered an issue with his kidney. His nephrologists, Dr. Gary Singer, later found a scar on a renal vain. Doctors told Key the scaring could have occurred during any number of activities since his grade school days.
Key waited about one year for a kidney. When they discovered his wife Madolena was a match, the couple made plans for a living donation. “We were set up to do this ourselves,” said Key, who leaned on his Catholic faith and the support of his wife to navigate the transplant process. “We had the kids taken care of, we had family coming in to take care of them, and we had food to last us for six weeks.”
Just a couple weeks before the surgery scheduled for June, the Keys received a call from Barnes-Jewish Hospital.
“I got the call on May 17th,” said Key, referencing “Semper Gumby” and the need to be flexible. “They said they needed me at Barnes now. I was late for work, and I was fatigued when they called. My wife answered the phone and told them I was in the shower, and that I would call back. They said, ‘No, this is Barnes-Jewish Hospital. We need him now.’”
“The transplant allowed me to live a normal life.”
The donor was a closer match than his wife. Before surgery, he found comfort in the staff at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. “What really helped, and it was so unusual, the nurse preparing me for surgery was a kidney recipient,” Key said. “It was amazing, she was telling me how she had done this herself and that I would be OK. And the anesthesiologist told me that her sister had just had a kidney transplant. So on my way to surgery, I was speaking with people who had been involved in my situation. That was encouraging. It sort of calmed me down.”
Less than a week before his 20th wedding anniversary, Billy was successfully transplanted by Drs. Singer, Daniel Brennan, Brent Miller, and Martin Jendrisak. “The transplant allowed me to live a normal life,” Bill said. “I can do anything I want to do. It allowed me to work full-time, spend quality time with my friends and family – especially my wife — and serve my country.”
His transplant gave him the opportunity to escort his oldest daughter down the aisle for her wedding in 2009 and share the message of the Coast Guard and organ and tissue donation.
Today, Bill and his wife are volunteer Passion Panel members at Mid-America Transplant Services. Bill speaks to student groups that visit MTS to learn about organ and tissue donation. Madolena, who became a living donor in 2005 by altruistically giving a kidney to a stranger, also speaks to groups in partnership with MTS.