Couple celebrates Valentine's Day milestone thanks to timely kidney cancer surgery

February 14, 2014
Golden years couple

Feb. 14 is a milestone of sorts for Walt and Barbara Smith. On Valentine’s Day in 2008, Walt was recovering from surgery. He had just been diagnosed with stage IV renal cell cancer and a large tumor had grown around his vena cava, the body’s largest vein.

When Walt was diagnosed, the Smiths’ doctor told them there was only one surgeon for the job: Dr. Ralph V. Clayman. The UC Irvine Health urologist is a world-renowned for his treatment of kidney cancer and was the first surgeon to successfully remove a diseased kidney using minimally invasive techniques more than 20 years ago.

On the day of the surgery at UC Irvine Medical Center, Barb says, Dr. Clayman emerged from seven grueling hours in the operating room weary, but smiling. He had successfully removed the tumor. The operation and a drug designed to choke off the remaining malignant cells’ blood supply would keep the cancer from spreading.

Today, the Newport Beach couple, both 83, are planning the next chapter of their lives together. Walt’s tumor has not returned and they recently purchased land in the mountains northeast of Las Vegas where they will build their dream house, large enough for the couple’s big extended family to visit. 

The Smiths are also enjoying a moment of fame, which came last month when they rode the eHarmony Rose Parade float as the “Golden Years Couple.” Both widowed, Walt and Barb met on the dating site almost nine years ago. After exchanging a few emails, they met at a local coffee shop.

It was love at first sight.

“When Walt walked in, I thought, ‘that is one handsome man,’ ” Barb says. A former police officer – she was the Burbank’s first female officer in 1961 – Barb says she instinctively knew he was a good man. “You can’t be a cop for 25 years without being able to read people.”

Walt felt the same. “When I saw her, I said, ‘that’s my girl!’”

They were married within months.

Barb noted during a recent office visit that Dr. Clayman is also opening a new chapter. After five years as the dean of UC Irvine’s School of Medicine, he will return next year to teaching doctors and treating patients fulltime.

For Barb, the medical school’s loss is everyone else’s gain.

“We are so grateful that Dr. Clayman gave Walt his life back and me my husband,” she says. “Walt and I are glad that he is going back to taking care of more people and saving their lives.”

View by Category