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John Gladwell (left) with Billy Welsh

'You never leave a Marine behind'

When Billy Welsh (right in the photo above) posted on social media that he needed a kidney, he received a very unexpected surprise.

By Jillian Oddo

It was early 2002 at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina when two soldiers met for the first time. One was in his early 20s, finishing up his four years in the Marines, while the other was a fresh, wide-eyed 18-year-old ready to get started. Billy Welsh was the young Marine coming out of high school when he met John Gladwell.

"My first thought of him was this guy's a jerk," Welsh said. "We kind of went our separate ways after we met."

Welsh remembers Gladwell being a grumpy old vet. He never thought they would ever cross each other's paths again in a million years, but life has an interesting way of working itself out.

Fast forward almost 20 years. Both Marines spent four years serving our country. Gladwell works now for the Kansas City Chiefs' security staff at home games and Welsh is a full-time dad. While scrolling through Facebook, Gladwell came across a post that he thought was a joke. The post came from Welsh.

"Anyone got a spare kidney I can get? Mine are junk," it read.

billy kidney post_1920

Not really knowing if it was a joke or not, Gladwell messaged Welsh to find out but didn't get a response. Gladwell came across the same post again, but this time it mentioned Welsh's blood type. It had a link attached to get in contact with Welsh to find out if you could be a possible match.

"After 14 weeks of testing, it was a 99.87% positive match, which is better than family bloodline," Gladwell said. Gladwell went forward with testing when he saw they both had the same blood type, O-positive.

When Welsh was 30 years old, he was diagnosed with Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD).

"It was so rapid; it just took over," Welsh explained. PKD allows multiple cysts to grow in the kidneys, thus reducing the kidneys' ability to function and leading to failure. With how badly the disease affected Welsh, the doctors wanted his transplant donor to be a perfect match.

"I was ecstatic. It was tears of joy for me," Welsh reacted to finding out that Gladwell was his perfect match. "I have a 2-year-old and I didn't want to kick the bucket. This gave me a whole new lease on life."

The doctors did not even tell Welsh about his perfect suitor. The Gladwells beat them to it.

"Before the surgery, I really didn't know much, but he calls me up and says I'm gonna see you soon. I'm like, 'What?' And he said, 'The surgery, I'm a match,'" Welsh said.

A kidney transplant is a major surgery for both parties involved, but he didn't even think twice about giving up his kidney for Welsh.

"After finding out he was a match, he called Jefferson (Hospital in Philadelphia) and said yes. Then he called me about an hour later to tell me this was actually happening," said John's wife, Randi Gladwell.

"I did it," John said as he and Randi took a moment to breathe as water began to fill their eyes, "because you never leave a Marine behind."

Former Eagle Vince Papale with Billy Welsh
Former Eagle Vince Papale with Billy Welsh

As soon as Gladwell found out he was a match, he did not want Welsh to wait any longer to get a new kidney. Gladwell immediately asked the doctors, "How quickly can we get this done?" The only issue was John was over 1,000 miles away in Kansas City while Welsh was in Philadelphia.

"They (the doctors) said we have to work out the logistics, and that part just killed me," Gladwell continued. "I was like forget it. Forget taking the kidney out here (in Kansas City) and shipping it out there. I'll go to him. I just wanted to do it for him because he was a new father."

With extensive testing to ensure everything was good, four months and 21 days flew by before the surgery. After all the tests and doctor appointments, the kidney transplant was finally set in stone and scheduled for October 13, 2020. With Randi by John's side, they both flew in from Missouri. Welsh and Gladwell were able to see each other right before going into surgery. Post-surgery, the two Marines woke up in some pain, but recovered side by side.

"Awesome. I feel great. I was able to retire from police work and now I spend time with my kid all day," said Welsh, who spent 15 years with the Camden County Sheriff's Office.

"I'm doing fine; I'm great. I have actually lost some weight," Gladwell said.

Never thinking they would see each other again, the transplant brought these two together and created a long-lasting friendship.

"It's like they've never been apart from each other; they're closer than their own brothers are," Randi Gladwell said.

"It's almost like we were best friends growing up and we have never been apart. It's like you're so annoying, but you're so funny. That's why we like each other," John Gladwell chuckled.

As the Kansas City Chiefs make their way to Lincoln Financial Field, the Gladwells will be heading this way to watch their team play. But what they are really looking forward to is getting to spend some quality time together with the Welshes in Philly.

"Just being able to see each other and be together. I mean, we get to trash talk each other for three hours too," the Gladwells said.

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