Kidney recipients hit lifelong home run
HEATH – Five years ago, Tony and Victoria Schmalstig stood at home plate in Don Edwards Park. It was a special wedding, in more ways than one.
Since then, they’ve literally knocked the ball out of the park, in a celebration of life.
The baseball lovers, and kidney transplant recipients, recently celebrated a wedding anniversary that wouldn’t have been possible had they not met at the Transplant Games of America. Or, had their brothers not chosen to donate kidneys to them.
That happened many years ago. In Tony’s case, he has celebrated his 36th anniversary of receiving a new kidney, and Victoria her 17th. Tony, 59, is a retired corrections officer from Dayton. Victoria, 46, is a Heath High School graduate. They met at the Transplant Games, when both were married to other spouses. “We were just friends at the time,” Tony said.
Eventually, both divorced, but the attraction was still there. “We knew exactly what each other was going through, and that was a big part of the attraction,” Tony said. Not only in life, but in receiving a new kidney.
When Victoria Holmes’ brother, Michael Holmes, decided to give her a kidney in 2003, she knew the transplant would change her life. He works for the Columbus Division of Police.
It meant she could live without being hooked up to a dialysis machine every night. She would have the energy to walk, play sports and spend time with her family.
But she didn’t realize then that her brother’s gift would help her find the love of her life.
When she met Tony at the Transplant Games, he also had received a donated kidney from his brother, in 1984.
Their connection was instantaneous, and it wasn’t long before they were inseparable.
“It really makes you stop and think, without my transplant, I never would have met him,” Holmes said. “Without this gift, we would never have found each other, and without these people, our lives would never be the same.”
Victoria was born with a kidney disease. She went into renal failure shortly after graduating from high school.
Her father donated a kidney to her in 1993, but there were complications. Her ex-husband donated one to her in 1996, but there were more problems and it had to be removed.
For 6 1/2 years, she waited on the transplant list, hoping for a donor. As she got sicker, her brother decided to give her one of his kidneys.
“He gave me the kidney I have today,” she said. “I have my best kidney function of my whole life.”
Schmalstig has a similar story. He was born with a birth defect that destroyed one of his kidneys and left him with 10 percent function in the other.
In 1982, he went into renal failure. His whole family got tested to donate, but his older brother, Dennis Schmalstig, was the closest match. He is an art professor in Orlando, Florida.
“I knew it was going to be me, and I was going to do it,” Dennis said. “(Tony) was kind of living half a life (on dialysis). He slept most of the day and was miserable. I felt like I had to do it because I could.”
After their transplants, both Holmes and Schmalstig started volunteering to raise awareness about organ donation. He was active in Life Connection of Ohio in Dayton, where he lived, and Holmes got involved in Donate Life Ohio in Columbus. Their paths crossed at the Transplant Games, a multisport festival open to any live donors or organ transplant recipients, and the rest is history.
Gold medal winners
The couple has since teamed up for gold medal winning performances in the Transplant Games. In 2016 at Cleveland, where the medals were shaped in guitar picks for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. and in 2018 at Salt Lake City, they won gold in mixed doubles bowling. “I presented my medals to my dad, who passed away in June,” Victoria said. “”Both of our brothers were able to go to Cleveland, and our brothers have our first gold medals.”
Tony also won both times in men’s singles and doubles bowling. In 2018, Victoria won gold in cornhole, and they have also competed in volleyball. However, the Games are about much more than the competition.
“It’s more competitive than you would think,” Tony said. Some people are very serious.” In 2018, they beat a team from Mississippi by one pin in the bowling. “The person who comes in last is cheered just as much as the person who comes in first,” Victoria said. “It’s an emotional roller coaster. We had a donor mom present us with our medals.”
The couple treated the Salt Lake City competition as an adventure.
“Getting to see the country is huge for us,” Victoria said. “When we went to Utah, we took two full weeks to do that. Tony is a big Abraham Lincoln fan, and we stopped in Springfield, Illinois. We visited friends in Nebraska.”
Although COVID-19 has set their plans back, baseball remains a driving force in their travels. And their life. They have baseball stitchings on their wedding rings.
“I’m Indians, he’s Reds. Baseball is our thing. We love it,” Victoria said. “Since we haven’t been able to attend games, we’ve been screaming at the TV a lot this year. Our goal is to see every ball park.”
“We’ve been to Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.,” Tony said. “So we have 23 to go. I’ve seen Reds games at Crosley Field, Riverfront Stadium and Great American Ball Park, and Municipal Stadium in Cleveland. Minor league parks like Dayton, Columbus and Toledo. On our first anniversary, we went to Cooperstown. On other anniversaries, we went to Atlanta and Washington.”
They went to Savannah, Georgia, where the team’s nickname is the Savannah Bananas. “He has a hat collection, and I told him, ‘please don’t get that one,'” Victoria said.
Their 2015 wedding at Don Edwards couldn’t have been more appropriate. “We had to have it done on a baseball diamond,” said Victoria, whose nephew, Jake Holmes, played for Newark. “We checked into Huntington Park, but they wanted a lot of money,” she said. “Ohio’s State’s stadium was not available. Don Edwards Park was great. They chalked the lines, and did everything including the scoreboard. We had a DJ playing baseball music.”
Through receiving the transplants, and getting to know donors, they have made friends around the country.
“Normally, we would go to a baseball stadium, for our anniversary,” Victoria said, “Instead, we’re going to Eau Claire, Wisconsin next to visit a friend, another kidney recipient who was in our wedding. We had people come to our wedding from Atlanta, Florida, Wisconsin, Kentucky and all over Ohio. We’re going to North Carolina next month and to Florida in December. Your transplant family, becomes your family.”
Receiving their kidneys has enabled them to experience special times with their immediate family.
“I get super emotional during all of these big moments that we would have missed. I bawl like a baby at big events,” Victoria said. “I watch my great nephew every day. I decorate cakes and got to do one for my great niece’s birthday.”
The couple still goes through health challenges, although nothing as bad as they used to go through.
Victoria sometimes has tremors or excessive sweating, Tony sometimes has memory loss or is forgetful, but they’re on relatively low immunosuppressant medication, since both of their brothers were perfect matches on all six HLA (Human Leukocyte Antigen) factors. And for that, they feel very fortunate. Victoria used to have to go to the doctor three times a week, and now it’s once every three months. Tony goes to his nephrologist every six months, and it used to be every month.
They walk every other day, usually 3 to 5 miles, and they have bowled in a league.
The Schmalstigs continue to give back to their kidney family.
“We’re both counselors at kidney camp, and I have been since 1998,” Victoria said. “It’s for kids who either have kidney disease, are on dialysis, or who have had transplants or are awaiting transplants.”
They also continue to make becoming a donor a priority.
“It gives you a legacy,” Victoria said. “We have so many donor families we’re friends with in Ohio. Everyone won’t do it. Some siblings in families won’t be tested. To the recipient, the donor is their hero. My brother acts like it’s not a big deal, but it is.”
“To this day, they do not think they are heroes,” Tony said of their brothers. “But they definitely are. It makes it easier for them (families of deceased donors), knowing they helped someone after their life is over. The surgery is so much easier these days.”
“We all share our stories to hopefully prevent someone from being on the waiting list,” he said.
Victoria can’t say enough about Lifeline of Ohio. “It’s not a job for them, it’s a passion,” she said. “They get to know you, and your personal passions.”
According to Lifeline of Ohio, the national waiting list for organ transplants is rising at an alarming rate, with 108,942 individuals currently on the list as of last week. In Ohio, more than 3,100 people – approximately 700 in Central Ohio – are waiting for an organ transplant, and hundreds more await tissue and corneal transplants. Approximately 20 times each day a man, woman or child dies for lack of an available organ.
On the bright side, In Central and Southeastern Ohio in 2019, 142 individuals shared the Gift of Life through organ donation at the time of their death – a 9.2 percent increase over the last year. In 2019, 423 organs were transplanted from donors in Central and Southern Ohio. This is a 3.2 percent increase over the previous year.
In Central and Southeastern Ohio in 2019, 681 individuals shared the Gift of Healing through tissue donation – a 15 percent increase over the last year. In Central and Southeastern Ohio in 2019, 339 individuals shared the Gift of Sight through cornea donation – a 36 percent increase over the last year.
A single donor potentially can save the lives of eight people and restore the lives of more than 75 by donating vital organs (heart, two lungs, two kidneys, liver, pancreas and small bowel) and tissue (corneas, bone, fascia, skin, veins and heart valves).
Ohioans may declare their wish to become a donor by registering online through www.lifelineofohio.org. Additionally, individuals may declare their decision when at the BMV, or by completing a Donor Registry Enrollment Form by calling 800-525-5667.