When a Knoxville, Tennessee woman married her husband, she knew he was ill and had been told he’d never see 30. Against the odds, he made it to 32, but his wife couldn’t take it anymore. She handed him a card, breaking the news about what had been happening without his knowledge, leaving him sobbing.
Steve Winfree was only 18 years old when he was diagnosed with kidney disease. He had committed to Maryville College to play basketball, but his preseason physical revealed poor kidney function. His basketball career ended as a long battle with kidney disease began. After his diagnosis, doctors told his parents he wouldn’t live to see 30. But, Steve never let his illness stop him from living life to the fullest.
Steve continued college and even met the love of his life when he was a grad student, according to AJC. Her name was Heather, and Steve was honest with her about his condition. Despite Steve’s poor prognosis, the two married anyway, and Steve continued to beat the odds. Then, after 5 years of wedded bliss, things started going downhill. Having battled kidney disease for 14 years at that point, dialysis simply wasn’t cutting it anymore.
Steve’s ongoing health problems derailed the couple’s life. They were huge baseball fans but couldn’t even go to a game because of the effects heat exposure had on Steve. Her husband’s health was failing at an increasing rate, and she knew his only hope was a kidney transplant. Sadly, although his kidneys were only functioning at 20 percent, that wasn’t enough to get him on a donor list, according to the Tennessean.
Heather couldn’t stand to watch her husband becoming increasingly ill. They were foster parents, caring for a baby girl and a toddling boy, and Heather couldn’t do it on her own. She needed a healthy husband by her side. Knowing what she needed to do, she had Steve meet her on the porch one evening. There, she handed him a card that would leave him shaking and sobbing as Steve realized what she had been up to.
Being avid baseball card collectors, Heather decided a custom card might be the best way to break the news to her husband. Sitting side by side on a porch swing at their Knoxville home, Steve unwrapped a new pack of baseball cards. As Heather filmed the moment that would change both of their lives, Steve pulled out cards of Angels outfielder Mike Trout, Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard, and Yankees outfielder Clint Frazier.
Then, he found the card Heather really wanted him to see. “What is it? Flip it around,” Heather urged. “Who’s on it?” It was a special Topps card with Steve’s own picture on the front, WATE reported. In the spot for the player’s position, it said “recipient.” Stunned, Steve flipped it over. “Steve has had a lot on his plate. With his health issues, he has been striking out a lot,” it said. As he read the words, Steve paused and shot Heather a look.
“He was not sure how he was going to wind up. His wife Heather thinks he is a great catch so she decided to go to bat for him,” the clever card, full of baseball puns, continued. “Now Steve will be a rookie recipient at Vanderbilt Transplant Center where his wife, Heather, will be pitching a new kidney to him. They are sure to hit it out of the ballpark together!”
The odds of having a matching kidney with a non-relative are 1-in-150,000, but Heather was a match. And, she never doubted she would be for one minute. “I had such faith this whole time that God would allow me to do this,” she said. From the first minute she knew about his condition, Heather was sure she was going to save Steve’s life. The night she found out, while he was still only her boyfriend, she started researching kidney donation.
Steve had no idea his wife was a match until the moment he saw the custom baseball card, which left him bawling. “My wife saved my life. My gosh, you just saved my life. I don’t really think I can thank you enough, but I can try,” an emotional Steve told Heather. While going through pre-op together, in the same room at Vanderbilt, they held hands and locked eyes. Then, the staff rolled Heather away. When Steve woke up, a part of his wife was inside of him. He was saved, and thanks to the video, he was an internet celebrity.
With a renewed lease on life and a lot of attention directed his way, it was time for Steve Winfree to save others. The couple decided to use their platform and their story to raise awareness about organ donation. “This is not about me, it’s not about Heather, it’s about helping those people who still need their miracle,” Steve said. “Because there’s not always a lot of hope.” Indeed, every day, 12 people die while waiting for a kidney, but it doesn’t have to be that way. As Heather proved, it just takes one hero who’s willing to step up to the plate.