Meet Rodney & Sheena Stepp

Sheena and Rodney Stepp celebrating their return home in May of 2024.

“2020 was rough,” Rodney Stepp says when recalling the start of his 4-year journey to a kidney transplant. “It started on March 14th.”

That was the day that the mayor of his hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana shut down the city in response to COVID-19. Rodney and a group of performers known as Men In the Fire were scheduled to play a benefit at one of the oldest churches in Indianapolis.

“They needed a new roof badly,” he says. “So, we made the decision not to cancel. Two people from that church died of COVID and that’s where we speculate that I caught it.”

By the next week Rodney was starting to feel unwell. After performing at a funeral in Louisville on March 21st in support of a friend whose mother had passed away, he drove home to Indianapolis feeling feverish.

“I got home, pulled off my clothes and went to bed. I would’ve died at home without Sheena’s persistence.”

Sheena knew her husband was seriously ill and she called on friends to convince him to go to the hospital. On March 23rd, Rodney went to Indiana University Medical Center and was immediately admitted. Rodney remembers seeing his wife’s face as they wheeled him into the ICU and hearing a nurse tell her that they couldn’t allow anyone into the hospital because of COVID restrictions. 

For both of the Stepps this was an incredibly hard aspect of an already difficult ordeal; but it was especially so for Sheena who could not be with her husband as he fought for his life. During the first few weeks of his stay, Rodney was on a ventilator and in coma. His memory of his six week battle in the hospital is spotty. Much of what he knows is from details shared with him by doctors, nurses, and Sheena after his release. As one of his doctors said of Rodney’s struggle with COVID in a video chronicling the couple’s experience, “he did everything but die.”

“I woke up on Easter Sunday. Or, no, I didn’t wake up – God woke me up,” Rodney says. “That’s when the battle began.”

At 5 AM, unable to speak, and hooked up to a host of medical equipment, Rodney learned from a staff member that introduced herself as his dialysis nurse that his kidneys were not functioning.

“I was stunned. When they started putting me on the dialysis machine every other day for four or five hours – that was the first devastating thing I had to deal with.”

Rodney remained on dialysis for 13 months and even though he was able to get off of dialysis, his kidney function did not fully return, and it became clear that the only option to improve his health and quality of life was a kidney transplant. On June 20th of 2021 he was listed at Indiana University Medical Center. He would remain on that list for 3 years before receiving a call from his doctor in late 2023 to come see him at the hospital.

“He says, ‘I’m not going to operate on you because your blood vessels are calcified, and I feel like I will do more damage to you than help you.’ The man cried,” Rodney remembers. “He was sincere. I appreciated it – his honesty – and he did go the next 10 miles, 100 miles, a thousand miles.”

Rodney’s doctor had a colleague at the Cleveland Clinic who had taught him, and he said he would write Rodney a referral. By November 30th Rodney and Sheena were in Cleveland for an evaluation. By January he was listed. While they waited for the call, Sheena began exploring housing options.

“I didn’t want to stay in a hotel because I already knew the length of time we were going to stay,” she explains. “I kept reading about the Transplant House and I finally called and got registered on the waitlist and then I just kept reading.”

The more she read about the House, the guests, and what resources were available to caregivers and patients while staying here, the more she knew she wanted to stay at Transplant House rather than a hotel or Airbnb.

“The thing that really touched me was the support everyone has here. I read the stories of transplant patients and I said ‘that’s where I want to stay.’”

The apartments with their bright colors, home-like furnishings, and kitchen were also a huge draw for Sheena. Being able to have a place to cook and prepare familiar meals was important; so was being surrounded by a community of people who know the challenges of transplant.

“I didn’t know what this journey was going to be like because each medical condition is a different journey,” Sheena says. “I wanted to be in an environment where I knew that if I needed help or advice, I could find it.”

For Rodney and Sheena, the time they spent at Transplant House can be summed up in a phrase: “very, very comfortable.”

Rodney’s wait for a new kidney ended with a phone call on April 28th, 2024, at 7:17 PM from the Cleveland Clinic telling him that they had found a kidney. It was nearly 11 PM by the time the lab work was done and the Stepps were asked to make their way to Cleveland as soon as possible. Driving through the night and early morning, they arrived at the Clinic a little before 5 AM on April 29th. After four years, Rodney received a kidney, and he immediately began to think about what he wanted to do with his new lease on life.

“God kept me here for a reason,” Rodney says. “You know I could’ve been gone – I can’t fathom this being a coincidence.”

Rodney has spent his life making and producing music. At the age of four and a half, his parents enrolled him for his first lessons at Butler University’s Jordan College of Music. From 1974 to 1981 he was a keyboardist and musical director for the Spinners, traveling with them across the United States, Europe, Asia, and Africa. In addition to numerous TV appearances on Johnny Carson, The Merv Griffin Show, Soul Train, and Midnight Special among others, Rodney also appears in the Muhammad Ali documentary When We Were Kings and in clips from Rumble In the Jungle performing with the Spinners.

“I got to see the world at a young age,” he says, “when I was healthy and had my faculties and everything. You kind of take a lot for granted, you think everybody does this.”

Rodney is taking nothing for granted now and has continued to make music that speaks to his experience, sharing about the realities of COVID and transplant. He began with his C19 Experience Project in 2022 that includes a mix of documentary footage, interviews, and a CD of music, and he now plans to write a book about his battle with COVID, his miraculous recovery, and his journey to a healing kidney transplant.

For both of the Stepps, their journey since March of 2020 has made them into advocates for spreading awareness of the transplant experience, the challenges it poses for families, and the resources that are available for patients and caregivers.

“I would have never expected to ever be a transplant person,” Sheena says. “That’s the thing – people don’t expect it, there’s no way to expect it.”

Rodney, who has traveled the world, performed with incredible musicians, and been on numerous television programs, his kidney transplant stands out as a “monumental” experience.

“This is my life,” he explains, “we’re talking about. To someone else it may be, ‘People get kidney transplants, heart transplants, and lung transplants.’ Yeah, people do, but have you? I know to be grateful for it. Life is short, let’s make the most of it.”

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