Valen Keefer could easily be mistaken for an actress, a network television anchor, or even a model. Strikingly beautiful, she exudes self-confidence, intelligence and charm.
In fact, Valen, 37, walked the runway of a New York City fashion show just last year. Although she was stunning, that wasn’t why she won this coveted spot. Instead, Valen was selected because of her courage and spirit during a lifetime of serious illness that resulted in two transplants. Her outfit was specifically designed to display Valen’s 60 inches of scars, which were highlighted with glitter. The fashion show, DreamWalk, gives people who have overcome challenges an opportunity to provide inspiration through their stories. Valen says she took to the runway to encourage others to embrace their journeys and find beauty in their own personal scars.
Valen has spent most of her life as a patient at various hospitals. She has epilepsy and severe scoliosis, which required back surgery when she was young and again as an adult. But her most trying health challenges came as a result of polycystic kidney disease (PKD), which she inherited from her mother’s side of the family. She was diagnosed with PKD when she was 10 and at the time, no family member with the disease had lived past the age of 53.
When she was a teenager, both of her kidneys were removed and Valen was hospitalized for almost a year. She was on dialysis, endured severe pancreatitis, and received more than 70 blood transfusions. At age 19, she received a life-saving kidney transplant from a living donor.
In her early 30s, PKD affected her liver and she became seriously ill. Valen received a liver transplant at age 35, which restored her health and the ability to do what she loves: helping others and living life to the fullest. She has turned her health challenges into something meaningful and become the role model she wished she would have had when she
Now, a patient advocate for PKD and organ donation with her own website, valenkeefer.com, Valen has appeared at about 100 events across America encouraging and supporting all types of audiences. The fact she looks great is an important part of her story.
“It’s important for others facing chronic illnesses and heading into transplant to see a healthy person in front of them—a person who has endured and overcome what they are about to experience,” she says. “I want them to know and see that there is a beautiful and joyful life post transplant, that they can do it too and that life is worth fighting for.”
“I find that this is the reason why I survived all of this. It gives a purpose to the pain,” she says. “Even though my life has been super hard at times, this is the deep-rooted purpose that keeps me grounded in gratitude. Being grounded in gratitude is really the foundation of me.”
Valen’s positive attitude and determination have helped her achieve what she calls an amazing life. She met her soul mate, Noah, in 2007, and they married on Sept. 17, 2011. Things were going well for the couple, who live in northern California, until 2016. It was then that Valen began to suffer recurrent episodes of infections to the point she developed a life-threatening antibiotic resistant bacterial infection. Finally, in 2018 her doctor in California said Valen needed a liver transplant or she would die. To improve the chances of getting an organ sooner, the doctor suggested that Valen dual list in California and another state. The physician’s top recommendation
was the Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Transplant Center
in St. Louis.
However, following the doctor’s advice meant the couple would have to temporarily relocate to St. Louis. It was a tough decision because it meant traveling far from the home they loved in northern California.
But after Valen was evaluated at
Barnes-Jewish, they knew it was the right choice. Valen believes she is alive today because of her surgeon, William Chapman, MD, chief of the Section of Transplant Surgery, division chief of General Surgery at Washington University School of Medicine, and hepatologist Jeffrey Crippin, MD, vice chairman for Clinical Programs in the Department of Medicine.
“I only had to wait one week for a liver. That was extraordinary,” Valen says. “Six weeks later I couldn’t believe I was walking in an airport and on a plane on the way home.”
Although Valen was a complicated case, Dr. Chapman explains that
the surgery went smoothly because the center has extensive experience transplanting patients with complex medical problems that some hospitals and physicians don’t have the expertise to address. “The top tier medical and surgical care combined with the collegiality of the entire team makes this a place that patients want to come,” says Dr. Chapman. “It’s a multidisciplinary team. That’s a catchy term today. But I will tell you that in the area of transplant, we were doing it well before anyone else was doing it. We’ve been using that approach essentially
since transplant started.”
The transplant teams comprise professionals from a variety of disciplines. They include surgeons, hepatologists, nurses, coordinators, anesthesiologists, social workers, dieticians and financial counselors. The team may expand to include other specialists, such as oncologists, when needed.
Dr. Chapman notes that some of the center’s coordinators have been at the transplant center for more than 25 years and are available 24/7. “Because of that, patients are able to develop a lifeline to the program. It’s very reassuring to the patients,” he says. Valen agrees, adding that a year after her liver transplant, she had the option to switch her care to California doctors near her home.
“There is no way I would ever do that. I have no interest in switching because I have such trust in Barnes-Jewish Hospital,” she says. “I know I’m where I ought to be. Being able to have trust in who cares for you is priceless. It’s huge in a patient’s world to know that if something happens you have this extraordinary team caring for you. It gives you hope that no matter what, everything will be ok.”
Valen says she will be eternally grateful to Drs. Chapman and Crippin.
“They are both so caring and genuine. You can just feel that their work is not what they do. It’s who they are,” she says. “I am thriving today because of them, my donor and the entire health care team at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.”