Kidney Transplant Changes Life of Former High School Athlete

By Katrina Dupins

The then-ninth grader from Gravel Ridge took a physical examination as required for all members of the football team, when the examiner discovered his blood pressure was dangerously high.

“I was probably showing symptoms before,” Freeman said. “But I shrugged it off thinking maybe I’d over-exerted myself by lifting too heavy.”

Freeman on bike

Anthony Freeman spends time in the gym training for the transplant games.

Freeman’s mother took him to the emergency room where a series of tests determined both of his kidneys were failing caused by a  relatively rare condition called membranoproliferative glomerulonephritis. This leads to inflammation inside the kidneys causing them to lose function.

Gary Barone, M.D., removed both Freeman’s kidneys. While he waited for a new kidney, Freeman had to regularly get dialysis treatment to filter and purify his blood in place of his kidneys.

UAMS preformed 170 kidney transplants in 2019 and is home to the Arkansas’ only adult kidney and liver transplant center.

“In an ideal world, we want everyone with end stage renal disease to get a kidney transplant before they even start dialysis,” said Sushma Bhusal, M.D., transplant nephrologist and medical director for kidney transplantation at UAMS. “The longer a patient is on dialysis, the higher the mortality rate. In Arkansas, the average patient referred for kidney transplant evaluation waits for two to four years before receiving a kidney and most of them are unfortunately already on dialysis. UAMS has one of the shortest wait times in the nation.”

 Sushma Bhusal, M.D.

Sushma Bhusal, M.D.

Freeman waited seven years for a transplant. Despite his best efforts, remaining optimistic while he was on dialysis was not easy.

“I dropped out of school because I was so depressed from not being able to play sports,” Freeman said. “I had been the team captain. It was hard for me to cope with all that was happening to me medically and emotionally.”

Things started to look up for Freeman when he was in his early 20s. He began feeling more like himself mentally. He earned his GED and had a perfect grade point average at Pulaski Technical College. It was around that time he was notified he would get a kidney.

“That was a magical moment,” Freeman said. “I remember laying on my car that night looking up at the moon and crying. It was a feeling of happiness I couldn’t describe. But I also felt bad because I knew someone had to lose their life for me to live again.”

After his transplant, Freeman was very appreciative and hungry to learn more and to be around others who had gone through similar situations. He joined a support group organized through UAMS.

“The leader of the transplant group was excited to see me there and started talking to me about the Transplant Games,” Freeman said. “I’d never heard of anything like that before.”

The Transplant Games of America is a festival-style event for people who have undergone transplant surgeries. There are competitions ranging from basketball and track to bowling and ballroom dancing. The event highlights the importance of organ and tissue donation while celebrating the lives of donors and recipients.

The idea of participating in organized sports was exciting to Freeman. He flew to Cleveland less than a year after his transplant to compete. On the way there, Freeman couldn’t help but reflect over the years leading up to that flight.

“I went from being a high school dropout to a 4.0 college student. I’m an athlete again. I was determined to use this competition as a way to showcase my appreciation for the second chance at life that I got.”

Arkansas has a small team compared with some of the other states that show up to the Transplant Games, but they are all full of spirit. Freeman has now been to several Transplant Games and takes the competition seriously.

“A lot of folks were rooting for us in the three-on-three basketball tournaments because we were the underdogs,” Freeman said. “In the 2018 games, we made it to the final four!”

Because of the pandemic, this year’s games have been rescheduled to July 2021 in the Meadowlands District of New Jersey. Freeman is in the process of trying to join the Paralympic team with the opportunity to train.

He made it through the first rounds and was scheduled to go to Colorado to train. That, too, has been postponed.

Ross Strength & Speed

Freeman trains at Ross Strength and Speed in Little Rock.

It’s been five years since Freeman, 28, had his kidney transplant. Bhusal says he is an ideal patient.

“He does everything we ask him to do,” she said. “He is diligent in taking good care of his kidneys and himself. He’s also very respectful and caring.”

Freeman is grateful to his family, his donor, his health care team at UAMS, his mentors at his school, and the Arkansas Regional Organ Recovery Agency (ARORA).

“To my donor’s family, I want to let them know what the gift of their loved one’s kidney meant to me. My life has changed drastically since the transplant. It’s hard for me to describe how happy I am to live and move so freely.”

Freeman will receive a second degree from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in construction management and engineering. Though the seven years on dialysis were rough, he says he wouldn’t trade his life now for the story of being a normal collegiate athlete.

“That seven years has taught me to be a disciplined adult,” Freeman said, “It’s taught me to be independent and to know myself. And I know I want to motivate people to be ambitious and chase their dreams.”

Freeman is a youth mentor at his church and gives motivational speeches at high schools in the area including Sylvan Hills and North Pulaski.