A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

‘Kidney’ husband returns to Churchill downs with wife on KY Oaks day to celebrate their good fortune


By Mark Hansel
KyForward managing editor

When Shaun McCarthy came to the Kentucky Oaks by himself last year from his home in Maine, he was on a mission.

Shaun McCarthy wore this jacket to the 2018 Kentucky Oaks in the hopes of finding a kidney donor for his wife Stacey. His story went viral and Stacey Received a successful transplant of a kidney that came from Cincinnati on Oct. 30 (file photo)

This year he returned to the Oaks with his wife Stacey by his side and his mission completed.

In a story that demonstrates the power of one man’s resolve and the impact of social media, Shaun accomplished something that seemed almost impossible.

In 2018, McCarthy showed up at the Oaks wearing a white sportcoat with the words, “My Wife Needs a Kidney, Blood Type O,” and his phone number.

Stacey McCarthy has a chronic condition caused by a strep infection in her youth that takes a toll on her kidneys. She was seeking her third transplant and time was running out.

“I’m going to Disney World” is a common catchphrase following a life-changing accomplishment, but it was actually someone else’s visit to the Magic Kingdom that was the inspiration for McCarthy’s plea for help.

“He saw a guy at Disney World wearing a shirt that said I need a kidney and I think that’s what got him thinking,” Stacey McCarthy said. “You know, ‘I’m going to the Kentucky Oaks, it’s got exposure, why don’t I try something like that?’”

A Northern Kentucky Tribune reporter covering the Oaks and the Kentucky Derby spotted McCarthy, interviewed him and included the story in its coverage.

People at Churchill Downs also snapped photos and posted them all over social media.

The attention didn’t stop when McCarthy left Churchill Downs.

“There was a woman that came up to me in the tram at the airport and asked if she could pray for my wife and she grabbed my hand and started praying right there,” McCarthy said. “I got on the plane, the stewardess took a picture and two or three people came up to me on the plane and asked to take a picture of the jacket.”

Other media outlets also picked up the story and in no time, the guy in the white sport coat was an internet sensation.

Stacey McCarthy spent the next few days responding to text messages.

Stacey McCarthy was well enough following her kidney transplant to attend the Kentucky Oaks with her husband Shaun.

“I feel so humbled by what happened after he wore the jacket,” she said. “I was writing down the numbers and identifying the area codes.They were from all over.”

The term “going viral” has also become a catchphrase, but Shaun McCarthy said it’s an appropriate description of the response to his plea.

“I think a conservative number that heard about it was easily a quarter of a million people,” he said. “The local media in Louisville picked up on it and we had three different news stories when I got back home.”

Despite all of the attention, it’s not enough just to find a willing donor, the kidney also has to be a match.

One thing that many people don’t know is that even if a kidney is not a match for the intended patient, if the donor gives a kidney, it moves that person up on the list.

McCarthy’s kidney was part of a nine person swap and she had a successful surgery on October 30.

“So, somebody in my name donated a kidney to somebody she didn’t know and nine people were involved,” she said.

The connection to Greater Cincinnati did not end with the local media coverage.

The donor has remained anonymous, so there is no way to know how they found out about  McCarthy, but the kidney flew out of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

“We don’t know exactly where or how, but we know it came out of Cincinnati,” Stacey McCarthy said. “Just because you can’t be a direct donor, it doesn’t mean anything at all. You can still make a difference in someone’s life.”

The most common comment Stacey McCarthy hears from people these days is that she looks so good, especially from those who saw her gradual decline.

It’s the color in the face because you are doing without oxygen and you’re blood isn’t moving the way it should,” she said. “Then you come back and you have all this color. There can still be problems, we can still run into issues, but I was up and around pretty quickly.”

So the McCarthys came to Churchill Downs on Oaks Day not only to celebrate Stacey’s return to good health, but also to continue to raise awareness about the importance of organ donation.

They learned that Carlos Santamaria, the assistant trainer for Kentucky Oaks favorite Bellafina is now in need of a kidney transplant.

McCarthy said he met with Santamaria last week and learned that he does eight hours of dialysis and takes a handful of pills every day.

Despite that grueling regiment, he continues to prepare Bellafina for races.

While Bellafina failed to capture the Oaks, the McCarthys hope that more attention is brought to Santamaria’s plight and he too can find a donor through the Kentucky Derby for fillies.

“At this point everything looks good and we’ve been through it, so now it’s time to help other people,” Shaun McCarthy said. “It’s just so ironic that we found out about his need and hopefully then it will be his turn.”

Santamaria hasn’t had good results with treatment at his home base in California, but he is expected to visit UC Health inCincinnati this week to explore other options.

Those interested in potentially becoming a donor for Santamaria or another patient can click here.  Donations to help pay for his medical expenses expenses can be made here.

As for Stacey McCarthy, her recovery is ongoing and she hopes this transplant will be her last.

“I’m not bouncing back quite as quickly as I did the second time, but I’m getting there,” she said. “We just wanted to make sure we came out to show how much we appreciated the support and there are no signs needed this year. It’s really a special day.”

Contact Mark Hansel at mark.hansel@nkytrib.com


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