Fifteen months ago, Steve Huebner ’76 was diagnosed with end-stage renal failure. It wasn’t a complete shock: Polycystic kidney disease runs in his family, and he’s a Type 2 diabetic. “Two strikes against me,” he said.
But thanks to medical technology and a lot of help from his friends, things are looking up.
According to his wife, Diane ’76, Huebner underwent a successful kidney transplant Thursday at Henrico Doctors’ Hospital in Richmond. He doesn’t know his living donor’s identity. He does know that without his William & Mary family, he very likely would still be on the waiting list.
It was members of the track team, for which he volunteers his time, who set things in motion with a social media campaign. It was a conversation between two recent graduates over dinner. It was an employee in the athletics department who knew all too well what Huebner was going through.
And it was a selfless act by a recent graduate who had no connection to Huebner other than the same alma mater and a mutual friend.
Huebner, 67, is expected to spend a week in the hospital, undergo a series of tests, and be on several medications for the rest of his life. But the key word there is life.
“I’m thrilled this is happening,” Huebner, 67, said before the procedure. “And all because of William & Mary and the track family rallying around me.”
Huebner is a track and cross country alum who ran the steeplechase and 5K in his day. After graduation, he served a combined 22 years, active and reserve time, in the U.S. Army.
Following his active service commitment, he worked at several major hospitals, including Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. He retired from Bon Secours Health Systems in 2018.
Then came his next chapter: volunteering his time as a life skills coach for W&M’s track and cross country athletes. He had mentored employees in his business life, so why not help those preparing for the job market.
“He was a person I could go to with questions about job applications, life after school, and for mentality training advice,” said Vlad Castillo ’19, a former thrower. “Steve is an incredible guy who has always, always, always since the day I met him put the needs of the students before his own.”
Huebner loved every minute of it. Then came March of 2020, when the pandemic changed everything. A year later came his diagnosis, which really changed everything.
Huebner immediately began peritoneal dialysis but knew he would need a transplant — the sooner the better. His blood type is O positive, so his donor would have to be a perfect match.
Needing help with a social media campaign, Huebner enlisted the help of W&M track alums Lindsay Schott ’19 and Molly Applegate ’17, M.S.B.A. ’18. Jennifer Huebner ’09, ’10 M.Ed., Steve’s daughter, made it a three-member team. They created a Facebook page to detail Steve’s story.
“It was heart-breaking to hear someone who has such a zeal for life be so wiped out from his body failing him,” said Schott, the integrated marketing manager with Zoom. “I was ready to help in any way I could, but I was a little intimidated knowing his timeline and the severity of the situation.”
Huebner found a supportive and understanding ear in Adam Andrusyszyn, an assistant athletic director for facilities and operations at William & Mary. Andrusyszyn had undergone a kidney transplant five years earlier, which enabled him to intelligently address Huebner’s questions and concerns.
“He’s been a big support to me,” Huebner said.
Last fall, Castillo and ’19 classmate Brian Carroll met for dinner in New Jersey. The two alums had lived on the same hall as freshmen and became close friends. Nothing was on the agenda other than catching up.
Castillo remembers the conversation-starting like this …
Castillo: “So what’s new?”
Carroll: “Well, I’m going to donate a kidney.”
Castillo: “Wait … what?”
With one more kidney than he needed, Carroll had made the decision to be a live donor. Castillo told him about Huebner, and Carroll quickly agreed to see if he was a match.
With type B blood, he was not. But Carroll learned he could donate as part of the Paired Kidney Exchange program, in which one incompatible pair is matched with another. That would move Huebner further up the transplant list.
Carroll’s procedure was in Richmond on Jan. 5. His kidney was flown to Indiana for a successful transplant.
“I had planned on giving the kidney to a stranger, so I had signed up for a program in Baltimore,” Carroll said. “I knew I could give to a random person, but I didn’t know I could give on someone’s behalf and make a chain.”
After the procedure, Carroll stayed in a hotel for a couple of days to make sure there were no complications. Huebner drove up to meet him. And thank him.
“I still can’t get my head around what would motivate a young man, age 24, to make such an altruistic gesture,” Huebner said. “I’d be waiting four to six years to get a cadaver kidney.”
The final step would be finding a match for Huebner. O is the most common blood type but also the only one that requires a perfect match. Wait times for those with O blood are generally longer.
But in the final week of May, less than six months into the exchange program, Huebner got the call he had been waiting for. He knows only that his donor is a male in his 40s. The kidney arrived on a red-eye from Phoenix.
“With Brian’s courageous and selfless efforts, instead of saving one life, he saved two,” Castillo said. “His kidney went to someone else who was a match for him, and that helped Steve get up to the top of the list.”
Huebner is beyond grateful. To Carroll, sure, and to his donor, who for now remains anonymous. But also his William & Mary family.
“The focus shouldn’t be on me as much as the ones who rallied around me and made it happen,” he said.
“Everyone in the athletics department has been so supportive. The track coaches have been tremendous, and the kids on the team have been stalwarts in their support.
“I haven’t been alone in this journey.”