The Penn State women’s gymnastics team had a record-breaking 2023 season, but while leading her team, head coach Sarah Shire Brown was navigating a personal battle behind closed doors.
In April of 2022, Brown’s father, David Shire, was diagnosed with stage 5 kidney failure, and by September, it was decided that he would need a transplant.
Gymnastics Now recently sat down with Shire Brown and her parents, Robyn and David. During this interview, one thing became abundantly clear about the Shire family: They are a true family unit and can attack anything head-on as a team.
Shire Brown’s parents were ready to adjust their lives accordingly and figure out a game plan to get David where he needed to be. They changed their diet, lifestyle, and added dialysis treatments to their daily routine, all while learning about the transplant list and process. Meanwhile, they continued to travel and support the Nittany Lions gymnastics team and spend time with their grandchildren.
“The diagnosis was hard to take,” David said. “I was pretty sick. Historically, I’ve been a really healthy person until this point. And then the whole goal was to postpone dialysis. Well, we got the call that that was not going to happen, so we made the best out of that. And then it’s a matter of going through all the procedures and all the steps that we have to to get to be eligible for transplant, which is hard and time consuming, but you got to do it.”
Navigating the path to donation
With one goal in mind and everyone onboard, Shire Brown focused on supporting her athletes and taking her program to new heights while continuing to try to figure out how she could help her dad.
“I didn’t realize how many steps there were to actually getting on the list. You would think if you needed an organ, you could get one, but unfortunately, in this country, that’s just not how it is,” Shire Brown said. “He was being so diligent and making sure he was following the right steps to get on that list.”
While her dad navigated his diagnosis and getting on the transplant list, Shire Brown was doing her own research and planning.
“I arrogantly just kept saying, ‘I’m going to donate the kidney to him.’ I just kept saying it,” Shire Brown reflected.
Maybe it was manifestation or intuition, but either way, Shire Brown wasn’t arrogant; she ended up being right. It took a long road and lots of testing to find out her statement was true: she was a perfect match and could donate a kidney to her father.
“I’ve always known Dad and I have the same blood type, but I didn’t realize how many, you know, there’s genetic factors, and I underwent a psychological evaluation, and I met with multiple social workers, and I know dad had to have a dental exam, and we both had to have dental exams,” Shire Brown said. “It was just so much more invasive than I realized to even get to this point.”
As the season picked up, Shire Brown received the long-awaited call on Valentines Day this year that she was a perfect match for her dad. Now, it was time to set their plan in motion.
“When Sarah called in February, I was meeting a buddy of mine for lunch, and I looked at the phone ring. I said let me take this call from Sarah. Real quick. And that’s when she told me she was a match,” said a teary-eyed David. “And so that was a pretty emotional time. Yeah. I think I just… that’s when I bought in, was [that moment].”
All in and ready to get the transplant done, the family wasted no time making plans for the operation.
“It takes about six to eight weeks to book an OR (operating room), and to make sure that you have your transplant team in place. And so that was putting us pretty close to the end of season anyway,” said Shire Brown. “And Dad and I had talked and I just said, ‘Hey can you hang on ’til April?’ He’s like, ‘I got it.'”
“Pretty close” to the end of the season is one way to put it. The Nittany Lions’ leader headed to transplant surgery just three days after wrapping up the 2023 season.
“When I got the call, my advocate had [asked] when is good for you, and I said anything the week of April 17 or later,” said Shire Brown. “She said, ‘How about April 20?’ And I was like sold, done.”
After nationals, Shire Brown traveled to Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, where the transplant would take place.
“I was impressed by how much respect the donor got. They went out of their way to make sure that everything was as it should be and that I was going to be in the best hands,” David said. “She had surgery Thursday, out on Friday. That surprised the heck out of me.”
The surgery took place on April 20, and Shire Brown shared their journey on Instagram a couple weeks later, noting that her dad had just been released from the hospital after a brief treatment for atrial fibrillation.
“The recovery has been a little more challenging than we realized,” Shire Brown said. “But I read a quote recently that was saying if you stress about something before it happens, then you essentially have to live it twice. You live the stress, and then you live the reality.
“I think that what Dad and I did is we maybe didn’t overanalyze it going in because we couldn’t control it – it was what it was. And so now, even if there is stress or hardship on the backside, at least we’re only living it once, and we know the outcome is going to be better.”
A new lease on life
The outcome is definitely better.
Despite the recovery challenges, David started off the interview by sharing he walked nearly 1.5 miles the day before and planned on hitting two miles that day, barely three weeks post-operation. This announcement brought excitement from the entire family, with their smiles beaming from all squares on the Zoom call.
“Sarah made all this happen, to be honest,” David said as he began to get choked up with emotion. “I mean, we can have all that positive attitude and we can say it’s going to happen, but Sarah made it happen. I mean, she saved my life.”
While Sarah and David have endless gratitude for each other, they made one thing very clear: The glue of the family during this time was the matriarch, Robyn.
“My mom deserves a ton of that credit. She used to be a biology teacher, and she’s super smart. We call her ‘Nurse Robin’ jokingly, but really, she didn’t sign up for this, and I don’t think anybody does,” said Shire Brown. “I think they’re a true testament [of love]. This June, they will have been married 40 years, and they’ve been together for probably 55… They’re high school sweethearts. I was raised in a really supportive home and it just really was never a question.”
It was never a question that they would navigate this new life together, but the transplant surgery has been life changing for everyone involved, including mom.
“Because he did home dialysis and we had a machine and we had to do all that, and now, at night, I look over and I’m like, ‘It’s not here.’ Or, in the mornings, I wake up, and he can come out of the bedroom because he’s not tethered to a machine anymore. The doctor [said] this is a whole new life, and it is,” said Robyn. “We learned to eat a different way last year because of the kidney, and now Sarah, she kind of has a super kidney. I’m just gonna say that thing is working great. Some of [David’s] numbers that were his toxic levels were so high, now they’ve come down, and it’s like, wow, he’s a new person.”
Leadership and lessons on and off the floor
If you’re an avid NCAA gymnastics fan, it’s hard to not see the parallels between the pace of this story and the pace of an athlete’s NCAA season. It’s fast moving, frustrating, and exhausting at times, but it takes discipline, positivity, and teamwork to get to the end goal.
Shire Brown shared some of the ways she used her experiences during this donation journey in her coaching career.
“I tell my athletes the same thing. You gotta sit down and realize, ‘This really sucks.’ And then, once you kind of accept it, now you got to make a plan. It’s kind of how we approached everything.”
Her mother also shared how she feels Shire Brown has helped not just her parents but her athletes deal with hardship and the emotions that come with these types of situations.
“I think something that you do really well, Sarah, is you allow people – dad and me and your team – you say it’s okay to have emotion. It’s okay for that,” Robyn told her daughter in our interview. “Because, I’m not gonna lie, there’s days I’m like, ‘Okay, this this kind of sucks.’ And Sarah’s like, ‘It’s okay, mom. You can have a bad day.'”
Sharing their story
With the support of the Penn State coaching staff, athletes, and family, the Shire family is on the mend and are now choosing to share their story for important reasons.
“I shared on social media because I wanted people to realize there’s a lot of hope out there. There’s a lot of love. There’s a lot of hope, and there’s things that people can do. But I also wanted the human side of the coaching part of it,” Robyn said. “This may sound a little selfish… We say Sarah’s amazing because she’s our daughter, but she has done a really great job. And I think she’s done a good job with her team, but when you’re in the coaching world and you have all these fans and they’re like, oh, this team did this, this team did this. I’m like, but you need to see the human side of the coaches. And the human side is that they care. They care about their team, obviously. They care about their family.”
Shire Brown has also become an advocate for living donation.
“The cool thing about donating and donor advocacy is that, by being a match for Dad, somebody reminded us that we’re able to move him off the transplant list, which then moves somebody else to the top of the list or higher, and hopefully then got them the transplant they needed faster.”
For more information on becoming a living donor, you can head to the National Kidney Foundation website.
Closing this chapter
While the recovery is far from over, the Shire family is grateful for how quickly they found a solution and how a fast-paced schedule helped the head coach continue to focus on two of the most important aspects of her life at once.
“I feel really grateful that he only had to go through this journey for one year. We’ve heard stories of people who wait for three and five and seven years for these transplants,” Shire Brown said. “I think when we had each mile marker, it was like start the dialysis and then get on the transplant list and then have the surgery. We just knew… eight more weeks, hey, six more weeks, and that was really, really good for us – I think as a family – and it allowed me to compartmentalize the gymnastics piece.”
While her dad adjusts to life with his new kidney, Shire Brown is already back in the swing of things at work. She called in for the interview from a coaches convention just three weeks after surgery, and Robyn and David are already planning their visits to support the Penn State team for the 2024 season.