Former Riverdale football player gets new lease on life after kidney transplant
Beyonka Sapp couldn’t fathom what was happening to her son.
Frederick Massey was a promising sophomore linebacker and safety for the Riverdale football team last fall – a healthy athlete with a seemingly bright future ahead of him.
The trouble began subtly, as she began getting calls from school that Frederick was falling asleep in class and didn’t want to do much work.
“That was so unlike him,” she recalled. “His energy level and effort had always been so good.”
He started losing his appetite and finally, the swelling started.
“He had swelling all over his face and hands,” she recalled. “And his eyes were yellow and dilated. I knew I had to get him to the doctor.”
If Beyonka hadn’t gotten Frederick checked that day in December, he could have died. When he arrived in the ER, his blood pressure was 200 over 130, almost twice the normal of 120 over 80.
“The first thing I did when I got to the hospital was pray to Jesus to please help my son,” she recalled. “I had no idea what was wrong with him and why this was happening.”
Frederick was diagnosed with atypical hemolytic uremic syndrome, a congenital disease amongst the rarest causes of kidney failure but more commonly seen among teenagers. The disease causes abnormal blood clots to form in small blood vessels in the kidneys. These clots can cause a myriad of health issues if they restrict or block blood flow – including kidney failure. The disease is often caused by a combination of environmental and genetic factors – including medications, chronic diseases, infections and a compromised immune system.
“I was shocked when I found out,” Frederick said. “I didn’t know how this happened to me. I was always healthy. The doctors said I needed a new kidney and that I’d have to go on dialysis.”
Frederick, 18, experienced grueling dialysis treatments three times a week for nearly eight months, sapping his energy and once steely resolve. But after a particularly draining 11-hour dialysis treatment in July, he and Beyonka got the call their family had been waiting for – Frederick was approved for a kidney transplant.
He received his new kidney July 25 via Memorial Transplant Insititute at the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood, giving him a much improved long-term prognosis. The surgery was the milestone 100th kidney transplant performed by Memorial Transplant Institute since it opened in 2017.
Beyonka said she was in constant contact with Gretchen Abulreda, nurse practitioner and transplant coordinator at Memorial, about Frederick’s treatment plan. Abulreda often eased any concerns the family had regarding the surgery.
“I can’t thank the team of doctors and nurses enough for all they did for my son in the months leading up to and especially during the surgery itself,” Beyonka said. “We couldn’t have asked for better care. We’re truly blessed.”
Frederick’s surgeon lauded the youngster’s demeanor before surgery, saying it served him well throughout the process.
“He was a very tough kid, very stoic,” said Dr. Juan Arenas, head surgeon at Memorial Transplant Institute. “He came in and knew exactly what was going to happen. Some patients are very apprehensive or scared, especially people his age. He was all business, almost like ‘let’s get this done so I can get on with my life.’ He’s been very positive and has a supportive mom. They’ve both had a good attitude and outlook through everything.”
Frederick’s surgeon said his long-term prognosis is positive.
“If he takes care of himself with his diet and never stops his prescriptions, he easily can have these kidneys 25 to 30 years,” Arenas said. “If he stays obedient to the program, I expect him to do really well.”
The news Frederick had a donor couldn’t have come at a better time.
During the previous eight months, the frequent dialysis treatments were taking their toll.
“The dialysis (treatments) took everything out of me,” he said. “I didn’t want to do anything and I could barely move. The treatments kept me alive but also were life-taking at the same time.”
Beyonka marveled at her son’s strength but worried about his mental state.
“There were days he didn’t want the blinds open,” Beyonka said. “Everything had to be dark. It definitely took a toll on him. How could it not?”
Frederick was destined to be a Riverdale Raider.
His older brother, Derek Sapp, was a linebacker for the 2018 squad that went 12-1 and won the Class 7A-District 12 title.
“We’ve always looked out for Freddie,” Riverdale coach James Delgado said. “He was a talented player with a high ceiling, which is what you often see when you’ve got a younger brother who has an older brother on the team. Athletically, he could do a lot of different things – a tough and physical kid. If he didn’t have these health issues, he’d be contributing for us now on and off the field.”
Frederick received some playing time as a sophomore, filling in at safety and linebacker. After his transplant, playing football would be too risky according to his doctor. But that doesn’t mean he can’t play other sports. Arenas cited former Miami Heat star Alonzo Mourning and American Olympic gold medal-winning hurdler Aries Merritt as athletes who have come back to compete at a high level after a kidney transplant.
“I wouldn’t recommend football for anyone with a kidney transplant, because you’re putting yourself at risk nearly every play since it’s such a high-contact sport,” Arenas said. “The transplant itself is very superficial, implanted in the groin … You’re risking exposure and damage to the kidney with repeated, direct contact.”
Arenas said Frederick could play other sports, especially citing track and field, swimming, basketball, soccer and tennis as sports with much lower risks for damage than football.
Just two months after his surgery, Frederick is working out again. He’s able to run and do some light weightlifting while he heals. That's in stark contrast to the eight months of dialysis treatments where his energy level was almost non-existent.
“For a while, I couldn’t do anything at all,” he said. “So being able to run and do push-ups, sit-ups, it feels good to be able to get back into shape. I feel like myself again.”
He may not be able to play football anymore, but Frederick still loves the game and wants to stay around it once he gets the go-ahead for returning to school. Frederick has been relegated to hospital homebound for his education this year as he recovers from surgery.
“I’d love to help out the team any way I can,” he said. “Maybe help give them some extra motivation. I’m hoping I can do other sports like track and maybe basketball (next year).”
His former coach said he’d love to have him around when he is healthy enough.
“Freddie has taken all this is stride,” Delgado said. “I haven’t seen him in his lowest of lowest points, but any time I’ve talked to him he’s been nothing but positive. He may not be able to play football anymore, but he still wants to share his story and inspire people. He has a unique perspective and is wise beyond his years. He’s been given an incredible gift, and I know he’ll take advantage of it.”