Mark Story: UPike Coach Kelly Wells gets a life-altering assist — a new kidney — from his brother-in-law

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJuly 11, 2014 

If they give an award for the 2014 Brother-in-Law of the Year, Brock Walter should be the leader in the clubhouse. When you literally give up a kidney for your wife's younger brother, you will be hard to beat.

By this past Christmas, it became apparent that University of Pikeville men's basketball coach Kelly Wells was going to need his second kidney transplant in 10 years.

The 43-year-old Wells, who coached Mason County to the 2003 Kentucky boys high school state hoops title and UPike to the 2011 NAIA national championship, suffers from Berger's disease (aka IgA nephropathy), a kidney condition.

In 2004, when Wells was 33, and first needed a kidney, his wife, Shawne, was the donor. This time, Walter, who is married to Wells' sister, Shelly, volunteered.

"Four of us tested (for compatibility with Wells) the first time (in 2004)," Walter, 50, the Superintendent of Boyd County Schools, said Thursday. "Shawne and Kelly decided then she would be the one to do it. But we all understood there was a good chance Kelly would need another kidney at some point."

That point came June 30th. At the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, doctors removed one of Walter's kidneys and implanted it into Wells.

"Obviously, I'm tremendously blessed to have someone willing to do for me what Brock did," Wells said Thursday. "It's not something he had to do."

That their lives would end up so intricately linked would have surprised both when Wells and Walter first became aware of each other.

In the late 1980s. Wells was a high school basketball star who led Rowan County to three-straight 16th Region championships.

Walter was an assistant basketball coach at Boyd County. The Lions had been on a run of three region titles in six years before the Wells-led Rowan three-peat.

"Kelly brought a little different level of competitiveness to Rowan," Walter said. "It got a little frustrating for us, because we were used to being the school winning."

Wells went on to play college basketball at Tulsa, then transferred home to Morehead State. It was after a routine pre-season physical at MSU that a team trainer flagged an elevated level of protein in a Wells urine sample.

That is one of the warning signs of Berger's disease.

The condition ended Wells' playing career.

He stayed in basketball, however, finding a niche in coaching. At age 26, Wells led Marion County to a surprise 5th Region title in 1997. He parlayed that success into one of the best high school coaching jobs in Kentucky, Mason County.

In 2003, paced by sweet-shooting guard Chris Lofton, Wells directed Mason to the state title. The following season, the Royals returned to the Sweet Sixteen finals, but lost to Warren Central.

That was also the year Wells needed his first kidney transplant.

"At that time, the doctors said a transplanted kidney is usually good for 15 years, maybe 18, 20 if you are lucky," Wells said.

For a good eight years, Wells had no problems with his transplanted kidney. In that time, he established himself as one of the better small-college coaches in the country at Pikeville.

In 2012, before an exhibition against Louisville in the KFC Yum Center, Wells began passing blood.

After the game, he checked into Jewish Hospital. He didn't get out for eight difficult days.

That season ended with Wells in Kansas City coaching Pikeville in the NAIA national tourney. Before his team's first game, his feet were so swollen he could not put on his shoes.

His Berger's disease had come back.

"I think around (2013's) Christmas time, I sort of accepted that I was going to have to have another transplant," Wells said.

Walter said it soon became apparent to him he was the best choice to be the kidney donor for Wells this time around.

"It's something you have to really think about, talk about and pray about," he said. "I had more concerns about my immediate family, my Mom, my Dad, my sisters, and how they would feel about it, than anything. But once I explained the situation, why I felt called to do it, they were very understanding."

Since the surgery, Wells is out of the hospital. His body seems to be accepting the transplanted kidney. "So far, so good," he said.

Walter came home from Cincinnati one day after the transplant. By last weekend, however, he had developed an ileus — a bowel obstruction — and had to check himself back into the UC Medical Center.

"I was eating and, basically, my stomach filled up, but (because of the blockage) nothing could get out," he said. "It was miserable. And seeing me having trouble, I know it was hard on Kelly."

Now back home again, Walter reports he, too, is now doing well.

The leading candidate for 2014 Brother-in-Law of the Year said the one thing he's learned in giving a kidney to his wife's brother is how much need exists for others to become organ donors.

"It's really opened my eyes," Walter said. "There are so many people who are waiting (for an organ transplant) and do not have anyone to help them. I hope people who are reading this will look in their hearts and step up to help if they can."

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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