Last week, we saw a heartwarming story about a retired NFL football player, a desperate medical situation, and the gift of life from a former teammate. What caused the crisis was type 2 diabetes – though as is often the case, the “silent killer” that is ravaging so much of America, particularly the African American community, is not getting the attention it deserves.
Ron Springs was a running back in the NFL for eight seasons, most notably with the Dallas Cowboys; his career ended in 1986. Five years later, he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. At some point, his kidneys began to fail, and three years ago, he was put on a transplant waiting list for a new kidney.
Kidney failure is one of the most dire complications for diabetes – NIH researcher Dr. David Harlan calls kidney function the most important indicator of a patient’s long-term health. In Springs’ case, one of his sons, Shawn Springs, who also plays in the NFL, offered to end his career by donating his kidney to his father, but Ron Springs would not accept a kidney from any of his children. Ultimately, Springs’ former Cowboy teammate, Everson Walls, agreed to donate one of his kidneys, making them the first American pro sports teammates to share an organ.
After the surgery, Springs told reporters about Walls, “We’ll be together for a long time now.”
The two men used their experience to draw attention to the need for more organ donors. “We’re going to help people get kidneys and donors of hearts and livers and all that stuff,” Springs said. “We’d like people to get it quicker.”
The goal is certainly commendable. Nearly 70,000 people in the U.S. are on the kidney transplant waiting list, about a third of them African American.
But what’s surprising about their comments – and disappointing about the news coverage (I saw the story on several cable news shows, heard it on NPR, and read about it in The Washington Post) – is how little Springs talked about the cause of his plight or the cause of so many organ failures. The problem is type 2 diabetes, and unless the epidemic is confronted, we’ll never find enough organ donors to meet the need. Confronting the epidemic, however, requires that the country first be truly aware of it, and Springs’ story – filled with pathos, drama, and love – represented an ideal opportunity. Denial plays such a large role in diabetes, particularly in type 2, that discussing it may be our best hope in diminishing that denial.
I wish both Ron Springs and Everson Walls all the luck in the world, but I also hope that they use their perseverance and their sacrifice to bring attention to the very disease that has brought them their new celebrity.
James S. Hirsch