For months after her diagnosis, Theresa Crockett told almost no one the results: Her kidneys were failing from the same hereditary disease that left her mother and sister on dialysis. She’d soon need a kidney transplant.
But a transplant was a longshot with terrible odds, Crockett knew. The waiting list for a kidney transplant in California is eight to 10 years, she says, which leaves individual patients often soliciting donor kidneys through social networks and word of mouth.
“Because I was advocating for my sister, we would make T-shirts, magnets, do social media, and ask people to share,” Crockett, 53, says of her earlier efforts to find someone willing to donate one of their kidneys to her sister, Sandy Henson, 55. “But unfortunately, people don’t share.
“They mean well, and they say, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ but they don’t share,” she says. “So I knew I had to do something out of the box.”
At each checkup following the 2020 diagnosis of polycystic kidney disease, Crockett says her nephrologist would ask if she was sharing news that she needed a donor kidney.
At each appointment, Crockett would say no.
“For eight months, I kept it a secret,” she says. “I was scared and in shock and denial. I had been helping my mom and my sister as their caretaker, so I couldn’t believe this was happening to me.”
Then, one day in the spring of 2022, Crockett had a different answer.
“I told her, ‘I have a plan,’” Crockett says. “She’s like, ‘What’s your plan?’ And then I told her that I was going to make a poster, and I was going to hold it up at a New Kids on the Block concert.”
Her doctor – while admitting that she too had been a fan of the boy band that had been massively popular in the late ’80s and ’90s – was likely thinking what you might be now, too, Crockett says.
“I think she thought I was crazy like some other people have,” she says, laughing as she shares her story in the backyard of the Huntington Beach home where she grew up and her parents still live. “But I did it. It was May 28, 2022, at Honda Center.
“I held up the sign and it it got Donnie (Wahlberg)’s attention,” Crockett says. “And then he took it, folded it up, and he told me, ‘I got you, I got you.’”
On Thursday, Aug. 31, if everything goes according to plan, Crockett will go into surgery at UCLA Medical Center and come out with a brand-new kidney donated by a fellow NKOTB fan from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
But that’s not where Crockett wants this story to end.
A heart-shaped poster
Crockett and her son Connor Crockett, 23, had barstool seats at the edge of the stage for New Kids on the Block when they played Anaheim in May 2022. (In addition to Connor, Crockett’s family includes husband Greg Derbez and son Julian Derbez, 21.)
She had a pink heart-shaped poster which she’d decorated with the colorful precision and penmanship of a preschool teacher, which she has been for the past 17 years. On it, she wrote: “Please share my story! I need a kidney donor.”
Asked what she hoped that achieve, Crockett admits she wasn’t entirely sure. Maybe to show up in fan photos of the show. Maybe get seen on social media.
Connor Crockett made a TikTok video of the moment – Wahlberg bending down, taking the poster, speaking to Crockett, and giving her a fist bump – which went viral after the show.
That got enough attention from NKOTB fans that some started the process to become a donor, though none of that first group made it past the initial health questionnaire.
Wahlberg kept Crockett’s sign on his bus through the rest of the tour, and months later posted it on the band’s social media. But it was the annual New Kids on the Block cruise out of Miami where a second sign posted by Crockett caught the attention of a doctor from Wisconsin named Christina Meyer.
“She saw the banner,” Crockett says of Meyer, who knew of Crockett through mutual friends who hosted a New Kids social media show. “She talked to them about it, and they said that they knew me and they liked me and Connor.
“That’s all she knew about me,” she says. “And she signed up on her own, along with her friends.”
So far, Crockett and Meyer have only met briefly. Meyer flew to California for a solo show by Joey McIntyre of New Kids at the Bourbon Room in Hollywood. They met before the show for dinner – at Wahlburgers, the chain owned by Donnie Wahlberg and his brothers Mark and Paul. They also met earlier this year at BlockCon, the first-ever NKOTB fan convention in Chicago.
“But we really haven’t been able to sit down and talk,” Crockett says. “That’s the one thing I want to do. To get to know her.”
Maybe that will happen on the New Kids on the Block cruise in fall 2024 – Donnie Wahlberg has promised Crockett to cover the cost of that for her and her family, she says.
“We’re going to make shirts for the sail-away party,” Crockett says. “Mine’s gonna say ‘the new kidney on the block.’ “
Hearts of gold
As an 18- or 19-year-old when she first fell for New Kids on the Block, Crockett admits part of their appeal was obvious.
“I was a young girl, and I thought they were very cute,” she says. “I liked their music, so every concert I kept going back. I’ve always had a love for them, but I think my love grew during COVID. Because Donnie, he connects with his fans. He would always check in on us to make sure we are OK.”
The group did a virtual cruise during the pandemic, entertaining their fans online to make up a little for the cruise that was canceled.
“The way they speak, especially Donnie, is like they have such a heart of gold,” Crockett says. “I know it sounds crazy, but this fandom is a family, and the army that I have behind me now with the situation proves it.
“They write me and ask how I’m doing after my appointments because I’m documenting everything right now (online) as it’s coming closer,” she says. “They’re setting up a meal train for my family for two weeks. Just amazing.”
She couldn’t have known what would happen when she went to the Honda Center with her poster, but she also says she did in a way.
“I’m a dreamer,” Crockett says. “So I had envisioned all this in my head. Everything just kept falling into place and happening. Me sharing the story alone of my sister wasn’t working. So if it wasn’t for the love that these fans have for this group, and that love had these fans sharing the story?
“That’s what got the ball rolling.”
A bittersweet plea
For Crockett, finding a donor kidney for herself came with the bittersweet realization that her sister Sandy Henson was still on the transplant list where she’s been in line for seven years.
“It’s very hard,” she says of her own good fortune as her sister continues to wait. “Because I started this fight for her.”
Henson is also a fan of New Kids on the Block, and she came close to getting a live donor through the same fandom network that her sister found hers, Crockett says. When Meyer applied to be a kidney donor, one of her Blockhead friends did, too, which at the time led Crockett to think that both she and Henson might have found their transplants.
But when Meyer was approved as a donor and the friend was not, suddenly only Crockett was in line for a transplant.
“I cried,” she says. “I felt very guilty. It’s hard, very hard. When I got the match (with Meyer), I couldn’t tell her at first.”
Henson has told her not to feel bad about the way things worked out. It’s still a very emotional subject for Crockett, though, but one she’s using to advocate for donors for her sister in particular and others in general.
The process is simple, Crockett says. All you need do is go to UCLAkidneydonor.org, provide the name and birthdate of the person for whom you’d like to be a donor, and fill out the initial paperwork, she says.
“People have contacted me and said how inspired they are of me for doing this,” Crockett says. “They said that they have friends and family members who keep it a secret, and that was me.
“So I’m hoping this inspires others and gives them hope,” she says. “I want them to know that they don’t have to do it alone. Share your story. You don’t have to hold up a poster at a concert.
“Just share your story because you never know who’s willing to step up. Share. Share and don’t let fear stop you.”