UAB transplant patient Drew Ferguson reflects on a life in sports medicine

Drew Ferguson

Drew Ferguson, whose distinguished career in sports medicine at UAB and Children’s of Alabama spans over 40 years, understands the pursuit of excellence in health care. He has witnessed and been part of many care and safety advances for athletes, but he’s also benefitted personally from the progress of medical science. He’s received two kidney transplants at the UAB Comprehensive Transplant Institute that, in his words, have been a major part of his good fortune in life.

Ferguson suffered damage to his kidneys at age six, but treatment in the late 1950s was limited.

“We had some snow that year in Georgia, and like any kid, I probably played in it too long,” Ferguson recalls. “I wound up with a strep infection, which reached other parts of my body and led to severe inflammation of my kidneys. Dialysis wasn’t available. I was under the care of a nephrologist in Atlanta. I was in bed six months and taking doses of prednisone, a corticosteroid used to treat inflammation. That was the beginning of a lifetime of issues with my kidneys.”

By the sixth grade, Ferguson’s health problems were limiting his ability to excel in sports.

“I was trying to play basketball, but my father ultimately explained to me that I would be better off pursuing a career related to sports but not as an athlete,” Ferguson said. “After high school, I got a full ride to the University of Georgia to be a trainer under Coach Vince Dooley. That was the stepping stone to all my work in sports and athletic training after that.”

A life in sports medicine

After graduation, Ferguson came to Birmingham to take a position as athletic trainer for the World Football League from 1974 to 1975, working with the Birmingham Americans and Birmingham Vulcans. In 1975, he and Kurt Niemann, M.D., started the Sports Medicine Institute of Alabama (which today is Children’s of Alabama Sports Medicine), and he served as director of administration and athletic training. Ferguson’s involvement and leadership in various programs kept him busy, as head athletic trainer for the UAB Blazers basketball team under Coach Gene Bartow and UAB Athletics (1979-82) and later as U.S. Olympic Basketball athletic trainer at the U.S. Olympic Training Center.

Due to limited resources and staff, Ferguson’s Sports Medicine Institute was open only in the evening, so it required working into the early mornings and on weekends. His work at the time also involved never-ending efforts to “hustle up” more clinical space, materials, and equipment. As perhaps one of the busiest people in sports medicine and athletic training during the 1980s, Ferguson moved at a rapid pace in all of his endeavors. However, he began to suspect that he was never going to outrun his health problems.

“My blood pressure and kidney function were getting even worse throughout the mid-1980s,” Ferguson said. “It was a matter of time and I knew that, with kidney failure leading to dialysis for six months prior to having a transplant in 1990. I was fortunate to find a donor match after being on dialysis for that short while. My doctors explained to me that this new kidney had a limited warranty, in a manner of speaking. There’s a balance between the need for immunosuppression with cyclosporin, so you can keep that organ from being rejected, and the damage that medication does to the kidneys. I kept mine 13 years before the damage was done. That’s another example of how fortunate I’ve been with my health history, in terms of some new advance in medicine coming to the rescue, the timing of some of my treatments or surgeries, and the relationships I developed with so many excellent UAB physicians. Not everyone has that kind of luck.”

Second time around

Ferguson has a deep appreciation for how serious health issues can catastrophically alter one’s life. During his college years in Georgia, his younger brother died from a cardiac event, his mother died from cancer soon after, and his father passed way after a second heart attack two years later. By 2003, Ferguson needed another kidney, and he understood that advances in the field of transplantation meant that his chances were good for a second successful surgery, without any unpleasant surprises. He did not anticipate that there might be a pleasant surprise, however.

“My wife, Diane, was an intensive care nurse for the renal transplant team,” Ferguson said.

“At one point she wanted to be tested to see if she was a match to donate her kidney to me, but she had contracted hepatitis from a needle stick in clinic. She was eventually evaluated and turned out to be a better match than the donor they’d found.”

Within 20 minutes of the transplant, the kidney Diane gave him was producing urine. “I went home six days after the procedure, compared to six weeks with my first transplant. I’m coming up on two decades with this kidney. I take medications for heart issues and immunosuppression, and the downside is that I’m vulnerable to infections, such as RSV and COVID. But the main point is that it was all a success, the second time around.”

Touching many lives

Ferguson is the president of the CoachSafely® Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to limit youth sports-related injuries through research, advocacy, and educating coaches, parents, and physical education instructors. He’s held numerous positions on local, state, and regional committees for athletic trainers, health care professionals, and youth sports safety advocates.

Ferguson also has been involved in public health legislation, such as concussion regulations passed in Alabama in 2011 and the 2018 Coach Safely Act. Along with numerous awards and honors for his service to the state and community, he was inducted into the Alabama Athletic Trainers’ Association Hall of Fame in 2002.

What Ferguson calls his “good fortune” has therefore been an equally fortunate turn of events for young athletes in the state and around the nation. His leadership, advocacy, and ambassadorship for sports medicine and athlete safety span almost half a century. Ferguson’s life and work are further proof that organ donation and transplantation touch many lives beyond those of the donor and recipient.

The UAB Comprehensive Transplant Institute is consistently recognized as one of America’s top transplant centers, based on its history of innovation and achievement in organ transplantation. Click here to learn more.

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