Gene Soucy and Teresa Stokes
Aviation legend Gene Soucy, an award-winning airshow pilot, has faced many challenging moments throughout his career. Few, however, were as daunting as the realization that he would need a kidney transplant as soon as possible or risk losing his life.
When Soucy learned that his kidneys had slowly been failing for the past several years, he knew he needed to find a donor.
Luckily, Soucy did not have to search very far. His wingwalker and girlfriend of 16 years, Teresa Stokes, a commercial pilot and highly acclaimed aviation artist, was the first person to offer him a kidney.
However, because she was not a blood relative doctors postponed testing her for compatibility until Gene’s brother and sister were tested for a match. Both were ineligible to donate. Before any other family members were even considered for a possible donation, Teresa had her kidneys analyzed. She proved to be a match.
Meanwhile, as his disease progressed, Soucy’s health started showing signs of decline. He was slowing down and getting weaker, but he just attributed it to getting older. “The onset of kidney disease is so slow; I just thought it was old age. I felt really sick, weak, and I had anemia. Nothing was right,” he recalled.
Soucy and Stokes spent time in their hometown of Houston,Texas searching for a location to undergo the transplant procedure. They thought they had decided on a hospital there, but when they discovered the doctor wasn't going to do Stokes’s donor operation laparoscopically, they started looking for other options
Soucy and Stokes thoroughly researched transplantation hospitals in the region and throughout the country until they discovered and settled on the University of Maryland Medical Center. “We found this to be the best and most progressive place in the world for both of our operations,” said Soucy
Added Stokes: “I went on the Internet to research kidney donations. I read how tough it was to be a donor. Then I came upon the University of Maryland Medical Center Web site. I had never heard of laparoscopic living donor nephrectomy before; I didn’t know it could be done. The [University of Maryland] Web site is excellent. It was really reassuring to know there was a better way. I was encouraged, and relieved. I went through every page and after reading many other sites, I came to the conclusion that you were No. 1 in the country.”
In fact, the University of Maryland Medical Center is the first transplant center in the U.S. to perform 1,000 laparoscopic kidney removals, which is the procedure Stokes underwent.
Laparoscopic, or minimally invasive, surgery is an alternative to traditional or what is known as "open" surgery, in which a large incision must be made. At the University of Maryland Medical Center, surgeons use laparoscopic surgery to make incisions only millimeters in size. With the minimally invasive approach, patients have quicker recoveries and shorter hospital stays.
In March of 2003, Soucy and Stokes came to Maryland to prepare for the surgery, which took place in May 2003. Transplant surgeons Benjamin Philosophe, Head, University of Maryland Division of Transplantation and associate professor of surgery at the UM School of Medicine and Eugene J. Schweitzer, professor of surgery, UM School of Medicine, performed the operation. Meanwhile, Stokes had a laparoscopic living donor nephrectomy.
Since Stokes’s surgery was laparoscopic she had a much faster recovery -- three times as fast as the traditional surgery. She was up and walking the day after her surgery and went home the day after that. And with the laparoscopic surgery, her scar was barely visible.
Soucy was released a couple days later having successfully undergone the most state-of-the-art kidney transplant procedure. He says he felt great just one day after the operation.
“The next day I felt like I hadn’t felt in 10 years. I felt like I was 20 years old again,” he said. “Now I’m energetic, like any other person.” Soucy was able to fly and perform in airshows just three months after his transplant.
Another advantage of coming to the Medical Center is that Soucy does not have to take steroids to prevent organ rejection. “I’m an airline pilot and most hospitals use steroids after transplant. But you can’t fly on steroids,” Soucy explains. “ The University of Maryland uses newer medicines and protocols, so patients get back to normal a lot faster.” After his operation, Gene he went on steroid-free immunosuppressive drugs.
Teresa on the wing
With both operations a success, Soucy and Stokes have returned to airshows and thrilling audiences all over the country.
“We’re so happy. We came to the right place. It was great,” said Stokes.
After their experience, Both Soucy and Stokes have taken advantage of their airshow fame to spread the word about the importance of organ donation.
“We get so much exposure with media with these shows. So we’ve started to talk about it on the television shows,” says Stokes. “I’ve always believed in organ donation.”
Stokes says she’s teaching a lot of people about organ donation. “I think it would save a lot of lives if people knew it wasn’t so hard to donate, she said. “It doesn’t change your life in any way and it’s very worthwhile thing to do.”
And Stokes feels grateful that she was able to become a donor. “I never dreamt I would be a kidney donor. I’m just astounded that it was so easy.”
By Michelle W. Murray