Ethan Wilson: White Sox, Hoosier IF Survives, Thrives After Transplant

  • Name: Ethan Wilson
  • Age: 26
  • Organization: Chicago White Sox, Charlotte Knights, Winston-Salem Dash, Indiana Hoosiers, Pendleton Heights High School

Author: Patrick Kinas, DNAOfSports.com creator.

(Photo: Ethan Wilson. Courtesy: Charlotte Knights.)

“I had to fill out a living will at 24 years old.”

This is a sentence that no 24-year-old should have to utter. But for Charlotte Knights infielder Ethan Wilson, this sentence was HIS sentence if a donor was not found. The bright life and career of a proud Hoosier had been suddenly turned on its head, and the clock was ticking. Then fate intervened and Ethan’s life began anew.

The Moment Life Changed

“I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing. Barefoot walking on the curb outside the apartment complex and I just started scratching my head,” Wilson recalled.

“The doctor called when I was at my apartment in extended spring training,” Wilson recalled. “And he said, I think the next step is going to be a kidney transplant. I was really taken back, I was 23 years old and he told me I needed a kidney transplant. Kidney transplant?”

Wilson, now 26, had just completed his first professional season with the Chicago White Sox after being drafted in the 25th round out of the resurgent Indiana Hoosier program in 2010.

Wilson grinded through his rookie year, struggling to a .132 average, happy that it was over and looking forward to spring training now that he knew the rigors of professional baseball. Wilson was getting into the best shape of his life, working out regularly and doing what he needed to do to open eyes in camp and win a job.

Like any professional athlete, as camp opened, physicals were administered to check on the players’ health. It was standard procedure, and something Wilson had encountered numerous times before.

What he had never encountered were the results.

“I felt fine.”

Unfortunately, the tests would not corroborate Wilson’s self-declared bill of health.

“I had my routine blood test that we normally have done, and I got the results back three to four days later and it came back showing that I had decreased kidney function,” Wilson said. “It wasn’t really anything that I gave any thought to. But they went on to inform me that they needed to run more tests, so I went through that whole process, and one of them included a kidney biopsy and that’s when I began to realize things were a little more serious.”

Another couple of weeks went by and the gravity of Ethan’s health grew more serious.

That’s when the barefoot Wilson wandering on the grass received Wilson received that phone call.

“It didn’t really hit home until I hung up with him and called my parents and told them, and they lost it on the phone,” Wilson said. “That’s when I realized that, wow, this is something big. This could be something detrimental to my career, to my health. So I went home and got a second opinion and he said the exact same thing, and I said, well, two is good enough for me.”

What was next was the pursuit of trying to find a match. But with thousands of people on a kidney donor waiting list, the odds were long and the wait was agonizing.

“I put myself on the deceased donor list, which is a minimum five-year wait in Indiana, and that was one of the quickest states,” Wilson said. “You could register in any state, but five years is five years.”

Wilson, with all due respect to his current organization Chicago White Sox, grew up a staunch Cincinnati Reds fan. The small, wholesome town of Pendleton, Indiana, all of about 4,500 people is located a half-hour northeast of Indianapolis. The Wilson family had a extensions seemingly had to everyone up and down the community. He grew up an Indiana basketball fan, which led to an awkward conversation when the coaching staff for the Hoosiers showed up at his house to ask Wilson to play for IU.

“I didn’t even realize they had a baseball program. And that’s honestly what I told the head coach when he came into my kitchen to recruit me. I had no idea you guys even had a baseball program. He put his best foot forward and I signed to play there.”

But the support system for Wilson, now in a major time of need, was strong.

“I had a huge support from my hometown, my community of Pendleton,” Wilson said. “I got together with 30-35 people who said put me on the list of people to get tested. They wanted to donate. There were probably 12 people who went by in the three-year period that weren’t matches or for other reasons, couldn’t donate.”

Time was now growing short.

“Urgency was beginning to set in,” Wilson said. “During my last doctor’s visit he told me that I was basically one bad cold from dialysis. At that point, I probably could have still played baseball, but it would’ve been really, really difficult. The effects of dialysis are irreversible. The average lifespan on dialysis is five years. Now thinking that if I don’t get a kidney within the next five years, 30 is going to be my peak, it was difficult to swallow.”

The direness of his situation had hit home.

“There were a couple of things in there that made it harder than others. The five-year thing, the word dialysis and seeing what dialysis had done to people when I was in the clinics. That was not very inspiring to say the least. On top of that, the five-year deceased donor list. Five years just seemed to be too long and I was at year three. I had two years left, but that was a little scary.”

“I had to fill out a living will at 24 years old.”

Wilson did some soul searching and difficult personal times to reconcile the future he was facing.

“I went through some really difficult times with prednisone for four months, which is crazy to say the least. You probably won’t meet anyone who has been through that unless they’re really struggling with life-threatening illness. During that process, it was really difficult. I was in my own head a lot. I would experience psychosis even, but when I got off that and that got out of my system, I was back in the gym and that’s exactly what I focused on.”

“I had one goal in mind, and that was to get back and play baseball.”

In other words, Wilson continued to control the controllable, stay positive and pray that there was a donor for him.

Pendleton

The town of Pendleton may be small in numbers, but it’s huge in heart, compassion and thanks to Wilson’s mother’s best friend – hope.

“After about 3 years, my mom’s best friend, Lori Lord, stepped up and said that she wanted to get tested,” Wilson said.

Put me on the top of the list.

“She was a match.”

June, 2013, nearly three years into the five-year period, Wilson had his match. But the story wasn’t over. Surgery was scheduled for August 21st, but after going through an agonizingly challenging period, Wilson needed some time on his own.

“I took a whole month to myself. I want to travel when I can because you really don’t know what’s going to happen with the transplant. So I took the month of July and went to Florida twice, went to Texas, California – I just traveled by myself and enjoyed it.”

He returned and was ready for the biggest day of his life.

And the longest 5 ½ hours of his parents’ lives.

“It wasn’t difficult for me. I always said I’d let my support system do my worrying because there’s nothing I can do,” Wilson said. “I had to constantly reassure them . I’m doing what I can, doctors are doing what they can, everyone in the community is doing what they can, so there’s no point in worrying. Control what we can, and that’s really what I tried to get my family to rally around, so let’s not worry about the rest.”

“I walked in there confident, I love my doctor, he was a great surgeon , he was very confident in his work and I just knew everything was going to be fine.”

The Surgery

His doctors went to work, while his parents said prayers, while Ethan continued to trust the process.

“The surgery was very invasive. During surgery, if your kidneys aren’t cancerous and don’t have tumors and otherwise won’t do any harm to your body, they leave them in. It’s a common misconception that they take them out and give you a new one. Really what happens is that they leave them both in, if they’re ok, and put a new one in front.”

“My scar is 8” from my right hip bone down to the bottom of my left hip bone. The kidney, as well as they could, is tucked in behind the hip bone on the right side for a little extra protection. So it was very invasive. My surgeon was amazing. He knew that I had aspirations to keep playing ball, so he took an extra hour and a half to two hours and actually stretched my muscles instead of tearing them, which normally a surgeon would just cut right through because it’s easier for him to get the kidney in there. But he moved the muscle and it made my recovery that much better and I never really had to deal with trying to rebuild that core strength that you develop.”

The surgery was a unqualified success.

After his weeklong stay in the hospital, Ethan continued his recovery, but with baseball on his mind. Within two weeks, he was doing push-ups. Once he saw the glue that had been holding incisions begin to peel, sit ups began.

“I was back trying to do as much as I could. In the meantime, I was really struggling with weight loss. Dehydration was the biggest factor right after because the way the kidney works. It was my mom’s best friend’s kidney, and the kidney was trained at her level of hydration. It was basically zapping my body. It was pulling all the fluid from it. I was drinking 8-10 liters of water a day and still having to drive 35-40 minutes to downtown Indianapolis to get 2 more liters of fluid through I.V. I did that for about 14 days in a row. So that was the biggest part. Learning my new kidney, my new kidney learning me-it’s been a huge learning process.”

“Obviously there are ups and downs with the different reactions to the medications I’m on, there are also some precautions I have to take with hydration, but right now, the most difficult part is finding a ride to get my lab work. I’m very thankful that that’s all I have to worry about.”

The Comeback

His last professional game was August 30th, 2010 in rookie ball. Wilson legged out a triple in that game against Kingsport’s Carlos Vasquez, who has since pitched in the Mexican League for the last four years while he was facing his own mortality.

Nearly 1,300 days after his last at-bat in 2010 when he was 21, Wilson returned to the field in the White Sox organization April 22nd, 2015 for the Winston-Salem Dash in front of over 6,000 fans at BB&T Ballpark against the Carolina Mudcats.

Wilson’s unthinkable journey was complete.

“I was very excited and had a lot of adrenaline pumping,” Wilson said. “The whole Winston-Salem area had caught the story and I had questions throughout the locker room and not a lot of my teammates knew about it. I was going through a lot of the same emotions, but they were even more intense. I was really happy to be able to step foot in between the chalk lines and play again.”

The comeback for Wilson nearly occurred in 2014, but Ethan contracted a virus related to the transplant that set him back.

“That virus came back and really wiped me out for the whole year. It was that same process of three years focusing on one goal and then trying to get to that goal and getting sick again, and one more year of focusing on it. I tried to focus on lifts, staying healthy, eating, running and enjoying life with a new kidney.”

Now back playing, and more importantly, healthy, one would think Wilson may be at more inherent risk after his transplant, but his doctors quickly quelled that concern.

“That was something I asked the doctors – do I need to be concerned,” Wilson said. “They said you should have zero concerns. You could go out and play football, you could play any contact sport and be just fine. If you were to get a ball directly off of your kidney there would be a little concern, but nothing crazy.”

Now having spent the past month at Triple-A Charlotte, it’s been another dream realized for Wilson.

“It’s been a dream come true to move through the system,” Wilson said. “To be the guy called upon when spots need filled, it’s been great. You hang around guys who are really good at the game and you pick things up. You’re not necessarily forced to learn, but if you’re a sponge, you’re going to be a better baseball player. I try to absorb the information when I can; when I hear coaches talking to other guys, talking to me, just take it all in and try to grow.”

The Storyteller

Regarding telling his story, then telling it again, Wilson knows that’s just part of his fabric now.

“I don’t think all of my teammates are aware of it,” Wilson said. “It’s not just something that I’m going to blurt out. If someone hears about and asks about it, certainly I’m open to answering questions about it and talking about it. It does come up because I have to hydrate, and there are certain things that I have to do and certain reactions with the drugs. It’ll get talked about a little bit, but not a lot. I mean, it’s out there, but it’s not something I talk about every day.”

“I really don’t tire of talking about it,” Wilson said. “I had the opportunity to tell the story last year (2014) in spring training and I opted not to just because I wasn’t ready. I hadn’t really given it much thought about how I would share it exactly and what kind of words I would use. I do regret that. Every opportunity I have to share it and I don’t, could be an opportunity where I’m not inspiring someone else. I think that every chance I have to share this, I can inspire somebody. I kind of help inspire myself. In a way, it kind of gets me locked in and helps me gain perspective on each day.”

“I tell people, it sounds kinda corny, but go get tested before it’s too late,” Wilson said. “A blood test is about $25 from a typical lab. Kidney disease isn’t a huge killer, but it’s silent. It’s not something you ever feel side-effects from. You just slowly get tired, slowly wear down and one day you don’t wake up and that’s how kidney disease will kill you. Go get your blood panel done, see what’s going on in your body, know your health and if someone is going through it, keep your mind focused on taking care of yourself and set yourself a concrete goal that you want to attain.”

For Wilson, the journey hasn’t ended.

“I like to volunteer at Childrens’ Hospitals,” Wilson said. “One of the things about kidney transplants is that your immune system is suppressed so that you don’t attack the kidney, so you need to stay out of hospitals because it’s really easy to get sick. I’m finally to the point where my nurses and doctors back home have OK’d me to volunteer. It’s just part of giving back. It’s what I want to do. I like to give back as much as I can because my doctors and nurses, staff, everybody there, my community, my family – they were all above and beyond.”

“It’s super humbling and it’s given me a great perspective on life.”



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