Henry Esparza and Gary Griffin: A Texas-Sized Donor Journey

By Steve LaMontia, Director of Communications(Photos courtesy of satexans.net and Susan Griffin) Henry Esparza plays for the Texans in the San Antonio Men’s Senior Baseball League. He is also a very lucky man on a couple of levels. First and foremost, his wife saved his life last summer. Henry was experiencing weight loss and fatigue back in August of 2017 but brushed it off, as we macho ball players tend to do. His blood work was good so he tried to simply work through it. He is a workout maniac and continued to do so but nothing was helping. Then in September his symptoms got worse and his wife insisted he go to the doctor, which he did. That night he was in the hospital and was told that he was within 48 hours of dying.

Henry had a rare kidney ailment and suffered from auto immune disease. His own body was attacking his kidneys. That began a three month regimen of dialysis and chemotherapy, as an exceptionally fit Henry went from 195 pounds to 157. Henry was then put on the kidney transplant list, which potentially requires a painful emotional and physical wait of up to ten years.

“I tried to make it back without the surgery and not have the transplant and was doing well but could never quite get back to absolutely normal,” explained Henry. “The doctor said you could eventually have to go back on dialysis. There were a lot of emotional swings and some heavy duty praying during that period and we eventually decided we should have the kidney transplant.”

Enter teammate Gary Griffin, part two of Henry’s good fortune. ‘We heard about Henry on the first day of practice,” said Gary. “My wife Susan is an RN and we discussed donating my kidney and what it would entail and prayed about it. I thought at the very least I can offer it up and who knows if it was actually going to materialize or match. The question was ‘why not me?’ If I can donate something that I can live without and give it to someone who can’t live without it then it was an easy decision.”

Gary continued, “One thing that Henry probably isn’t aware of is that if my kidney wouldn’t work for him that my wife was going to offer hers. We were committed to saving Henry’s life, one way or the other.”

Gary and Henry have known each other for over 20 years in the league, playing on opposing teams, but three years ago became teammates on the 60-over Texans in San Antonio. They are both 64 years old. Dave Parker is their manager and isn’t really surprised at Gary’s offer to help Henry. “Baseball goes beyond just the game and building a team. I recruit the man that they are before the player that they are. Henry and Gary are great people and are quality guys. Our team is a very tight group of individuals and that’s why Gary did it. They are brothers.”

These special teammates certainly haven’t escaped the watchful eye of league president Skip Bradley. “Henry has been an SAMSBL member for nearly two decades. He used to be an “easy out”, but now he owns me. He has learned to be tough. I now know how tough! He is good people.”

Added Bradley, “Gary, too, is approaching two decades as a member. I offered him a spot on my team years back. He turned me down, and now I see why. He was meant to be Henry’s teammate. An amazing gesture what Gary did!”

On May 18th of this year Gary and Henry were involved in what is known as a ‘kidney exchange’ that involved ten people. Gary wasn’t an exact match to Henry but was very close. But his kidney was an exact match for someone else who could better match Henry and so it goes on down the line. This procedure is becoming more common and literally involves taking one kidney into another room for installation. Many people were saved in one giant procedure at the same time.

“They don’t take out your old kidneys, they just put the new one in,” said Henry. “Now I have three kidneys but only one works. Thank God everyone in that room can function normally with just one kidney.”

Outfielder Henry will be on medication for quite a while into the future but has already gained back 15 pounds since the surgery. He also fully expects to be back on the field by the end of the year. He is a college professor and also an MSBL World Series veteran with the always tough Lonestars with hopes of getting to Arizona again this year. Gary has some knee surgery on the horizon for September so his return to the field will be delayed until the 2019 season but will also be playing again. “I might as well get everything taken care of now,” stated first baseman Gary. “All Henry owes me is a couple of 9-3 putouts next year!”

Gary also added, “Susan and I went through quite a bit of counseling and they keep asking ‘are you sure you want to do this?’(donating) and there was never a moment we hesitated. Dave Parker and our teammates are the greatest guys in the world and welcomed both Susan and I a few years back and even call Susan ‘Mom’. It was a no-brainer. I’m sure that a lot of other guys on the team would have done the same thing.”

Things will be back to normal in a few shorts weeks and Henry and Gary will be back on the field healthier and with a newfound bond that will surely last a lifetime. Henry has become understandably more philosophical about this journey. “Respect of the game is paramount and there is nothing like it but pay attention to your body. We’re not the sharpest knives in the drawer. Don’t just shake off an injury. Have it checked out. The truth will save your life and don’t think you can just beat anything. Don’t be stupid.”

Henry concluded, “In further reflection I would say to all to relish the relationships they will foster and cultivate. You will meet some of the greatest men in the country. Men of character and passion for the game we love but also for life. You never know, you may meet someone who may save your life!