In sickness and in health; KSU employee gives gift of life

Breanne George

Marti Ring knew she found her soul mate when she met her husband, Billy Whitcomb.

In their case, soul mates share more than a heart.

Ring, a development associate at WKSU, knew she had to do something to help her husband, who was in desperate need of a kidney transplant. Diabetes was the cause of Whitcomb’s kidney failure. He became diabetic at 19 and started to have serious health problems in his early 40s. Twenty years of being diabetic had taken its toll.

Whitcomb had received a kidney from his brother, but his body was slowly rejecting it. After four years, Ring could no longer stand and watch his condition worsen.

“I felt I had a purpose,” Ring said. “I said to my husband, ‘Honey, I’m doing it. I want to give you a kidney.'”

Whitcomb’s sense of humor lightened even the most serious situation.

“But I won’t ever see you wear a bikini again,” he joked.

He said he did not want her to donate a kidney because he remembered how badly his brother had been scarred from the surgery.

A check-up at University Hospitals of Cleveland changed his mind.

A transplant nurse said the operation had been changed to a laparoscopic process, where three small incisions are made instead.

“The operation was no longer as invasive as it had been,” Whitcomb said.

When they returned from the hospital, Ring received a letter in the mail from Kent State saying it changed its insurance policy so an employee who chooses to be an organ donor would receive six weeks of paid leave.

“I definitely saw this as a sign from God that I need to do this,” Ring said. “I told Billy, ‘Does God have to kick you?'”

Whitcomb agreed.

The process of testing began to ensure Ring was healthy enough to go through surgery and Whitcomb’s body would not reject her kidney.

“Each test brings you one step closer to becoming a donor,” she said. “One bad test would mean I couldn’t help him. That was the only time I was nervous.”

Ring passed all the tests and was ready to save her husband’s life.

“I was never nervous about the surgery,” she said. “When you love someone, you put them first. You put them before yourself.”

After 20 years of diabetes, Whitcomb was almost ready to give up.

“I thought it was the end of the line for me,” he said. “I sold my motorcycle, cleared up my bills. I was tired of being sick and I didn’t feel like fighting anymore.”

Ring came into his life right when he was giving up. In the beginning, Whitcomb kept his health problems a secret from Ring for a month.

After she found out they spent most dates at Whitcomb’s house watching movies because he had to be hooked up to a dialysis machine at night, which cleansed his system.

“I was pushing her away at this point because I didn’t want her to go through all this hardship,” Whitcomb said. “When I told her she deserved someone who was going places other than out, Ring said, ‘I’m in it for a week, a month, a year – I’m in it forever.'”

They were engaged after three months of dating and married on May 23, 1998.

Five years later Ring donated her kidney. Whitcomb’s body reacted positively, as the new kidney produced five gallons of urine in 24 hours.

The recovery period after the surgery was a bonding experience for both of them.

“We would spend evenings on the deck just talking on the hammock watching the sunset,” Whitcomb said. “We had a rough start to our marriage because I was so sick, so this was a way for us to reconnect.”

Ring and Whitcomb now volunteer for Lifebanc in Cleveland, an organ procurement organization that spreads awareness of organ donation.

Thousands of people are waiting for a transplant each year. Only 74 organ transplants took place in Northeast Ohio last year, Heald said.

Ring had always been a registered organ donor, but she emphasized the need for living donors.

“It is an unexplainable feeling,” she said. “I never had children, so in a way this was my chance to give life.”

Contact features correspondent Breanne George at [email protected].