How Thrashers hockey saved a life

By Ben Wright

Two years ago Thrashers fan Andy Freeman got some startling news: his kidneys were failing and he was in need of a kidney transplant. He immediately began going to a clinic three times a week for hemodialysis, a three-to-four hour process that involved having his blood removed from his body, cleaned, and filtered back into his system

Time consuming and tiring - not to mention inconvenient for someone who works - hemodialysis was a temporary solution. After five months of it Andy switched to peritoneal dialysis, a procedure which could be done at home while he slept. Most importantly, as he put it with a laugh, it allowed him to eat and drink almost anything he wanted, as long as he watched his sodium intake. At the same time he was placed on the transplant list to receive a kidney. Each year in Georgia approximately 300 kidney transplants are performed, but there are more than 1500 people on the waiting list and the list keeps growing. Faced with a lengthy wait Andy got to work looking for a donor on his own.

One by one family, friends, and acquaintances went and got tested, but for one reason or another none of them made it through a rigorous organ donor screening process that involves a whole lot more than medical exams. Some came close, but none of them were approved as suitable donors for Andy.

As he continued his search for a donor Andy went on with his life, working as a government lobbyist and keeping up with the Thrashers. As long-time casual fans Andy and his wife had been to many games with friends and co-workers, but when it came time for the 2005-06 Thrashers season they opted to get a ticket package of their own. Little did they know that immersing themselves in Thrashers hockey would be a life-saving experience.

As he geared up for the season Andy searched the Internet for a Thrashers message board that suited his taste where he could talk hockey and get to know some fellow fans. As a result he became friends with many members of the Nasty Nest fan site. Known for being loud and rambunctious, the group shared Andy's passion for the Thrashers, even though the Freeman's seats weren't with the rest of the group. Through his interaction with his new-found friends it became known that Andy was looking for a kidney donor. On a whim he set his message board signature to say "Does anyone have an extra kidney they can give me?"

That's where Brandi Shaw comes in. The Ohio native and mother of two girls had been in Atlanta for the better part of 13 years, and was becoming a first-time ticket plan holder. Brandi's husband Doug met Andy while watching a Thrashers road game with some other Nasty Nest members at a local sports restaurant. They spoke on a few occasions and Doug became familiar with Andy's plight. A short time later Brandi saw Andy's signature on the message boards and asked her husband if Andy really needed a kidney. When she found out that he was indeed looking for a donor she casually asked her husband to find out what Andy's blood type was. Lo and behold, they were a match.

After meeting Andy at a Thrashers game, Brandi talked to him about his situation and asked about the process for finding out if she was a suitable donor. Surprised that someone he barely knew would be willing to make such a sacrifice, Andy explained how it worked, all the while telling Brandi she was under no pressure to go through with anything.

Determined to help, Brandi went through the screening process even though conventional wisdom said the odds of being a perfect match for a non-relative were astronomical. At each stage Andy reconciled himself to the possibility Brandi would be ruled out, much like the more than 20 people who had been screened before her. Amazingly, Brandi cleared each hurdle, passed each test, and in early July she was declared a suitable transplant candidate.

On August 16, with the full support of their spouses and families, Andy Freeman and Brandi Shaw checked into Piedmont Hospital's transplant wing. The next day Brandi gave Andy, a complete stranger just ten months before, an absolutely priceless gift.

"For somebody that you don't even know, for them to be willing to do that - it's absolutely phenomenal," said Andy a week after the surgery. "There are a lot of people that offer to be a donor but most of them never go through with it. We'd only met once, so I didn't really think she was going to go through with it. But the more I got to know her, the more I thought it could happen."

Not one to get his hopes up after so many disappointments, Andy didn't let himself really believe that he was finally going to receive the life-saving gift of Brandi's kidney until the entire screening process was completed in early July. At each step Andy and the doctors reminded Brandi that she was under no obligation to go through with the surgery.

As she recalled, "Even as I was being wheeled off to surgery one of the nurses said I could still call it off. I told her it was too late. I was too prepped to not go ahead with it."




Buoyed by the support of their families, friends, and fellow Thrashers fans, Brandi and Andy are well on their way to full recoveries and the transplanted kidney is fully functional inside its new host. Brandi beat Andy out of the hospital by a few hours on August 21 and returned to work as a teacher after Labor Day. Andy's recovery will take a little while longer as his body adjusts to being able to clean its own blood rather than depend on dialysis as it has for the last two years. As luck would have it, Andy was cleared to resume driving and other normal activities on September 14 - just in time for the beginning of Thrashers training camp, which he took in on September 15.

On September 17, the Shaw and Freeman families were special guests of Garnet Exelby at the practice facility in Duluth. Exelby had heard about Andy and Brandi's incredible story and called them shortly after their surgeries to invite them up to training camp. After practice on Sunday the big defenseman gave the Freemans and Shaws a behind-the-scenes tour of the practice facility, giving them a glimpse of the day-to-day operations of the Thrashers, and stopping to pose for occasional pictures. The group also had a chance to meet Coach Bob Hartley and forward Jimmy Slater, both of whom had heard about the transplant and were excited to see Andy and Brandi back in action and ready for the 2006-07 Thrashers season.

While the surgery marked what everyone hopes is the end of a long and arduous process for Andy and Brandi, it's also the beginning of an exciting period for both of their families.

Before being diagnosed with kidney failure Andy had done some work with the National Kidney Foundation of Georgia. Now he is on their board of directors and working to raise awareness and funds for the group. As a fortuitous side effect, the screening process that eliminated several potential donors helped them discover that they had health issues of their own they needed to deal with, including hypertension and diabetes. Had it not been for the screening process those conditions may have gone undetected for a longer period.

Brandi's incredible act of compassion has opened the door for her and her husband Doug to spread the word about being a living organ donor. It has also led to people approaching them to inquire about ways that they can get involved with the National Kidney Foundation.

As Doug put it, "So many incredible things have come out of this experience. After seeing the whole process and the impact it has had on us and on Andy and his family, I want to do everything I can to help other people. If I was medically able to give an organ, I'd do it."

Ben Wright is the Web site Assistant for the Atlanta Thrashers.

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