Riding his motorcycle, hunting and camping are on Bob Mullett's to-do list this summer. Since undergoing a kidney transplant at the University of Missouri in January 2015, Mullett said he feels like he has a second chance at life.
“I feel fantastic,” he said. “I wouldn’t wish kidney disease on anyone, but if you get a chance to get a transplant, I fully recommend University Hospital.”
“Bob used to take three to five naps a day,” said Bob’s wife, Vickey Mullett. “Now he has more energy than I’ve seen in years.” The Mulletts, married 38 years, live in Eldon, Missouri. Bob and Vickey’s close- knit family includes daughters Michelle and Tina and son Bobby, who donated his left kidney to his father.
"I can't understand people saying that I'm a hero for donating a kidney," Bobby said. "Lots of people say they couldn't give a part of their body, but I think if it comes down to someone in their family, they could."
Addressing the need
High blood pressure, or hypertension, caused Bob Mullett’s kidneys to fail. Two years ago, his doctor told him that his kidneys were functioning at 50 percent. By the time he underwent his transplant procedure at University Hospital, his kidneys were working at 14 percent. If not for the transplant, he would have been required to undergo a rigorous dialysis schedule multiple times weekly.
Bob, 70, accepted that he might require dialysis and be placed on a waiting list for a donor kidney. It was harder for him to accept his son’s willingness to donate one of his healthy kidneys. Once Bobby, 34, knew his father needed a kidney transplant, he was adamant about donating one of his.
“Waiting was the hardest part,” Bobby said, referring to the extensive medical screening process to ensure that a volunteer donor is a good match and in top mental and physical condition.
The screening process can take up to six months. Prospective donors must undergo a battery of tests that include blood draws, heart testing, ultrasounds, CT scans and other tests as part of a comprehensive evaluation. To be a good match, the transplant team looks for blood type compatibility and six specific antigens, or proteins on cells, that are markers for a good match As Bob’s son, Bobby was guaranteed to have at least three of the same antigens. Tests revealed they had four matching antigens, a good sign.
A silver lining
University of Missouri Health Care's renal transplant program was founded in 1972. More than 1,100 patients have undergone kidney transplants at MU.
MU Health Care's nephrology program and urology program ranked among the top in Missouri by U.S. News and World Report's 2014-15 rankings.
Ramesh Khanna, MD, said hypertension, diabetes and a disease named glomerulonephritis are the most common causes of kidney failure. Khanna, the Karl D. Nolph, MD, Chair in Nephrology, is a nephrologist, or kidney specialist, and co- director of University of Missouri Health Care’s kidney transplant program.
In his 32 years at MU Health Care, Khanna has seen numerous patients through dialysis treatments as well as transplants.
“If my patients are eligible for transplantation, that is generally what I recommend,” Khanna said. “Kidney transplant is a silver lining for patients with chronic kidney disease. I find it’s a life-changing treatment.”
Surgery and recovery
Bob, who parachuted from planes as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division of the U.S. Army in the 1960s, has a simple philosophy for facing fear: tackle it head on.
“If you let your fear incapacitate you, you’ll be afraid forever,” Bob said. “Being in the military, you learn that you have to trust your ability and the ability of those around you. I trusted Dr. Wakefield and everyone at the hospital.”
On Jan. 13, 2015, the Mullett family gathered at University Hospital. While Bob and Bobby underwent their operations, Vickey and Bobby’s fiancée, Blair Hendricks, received updates from the staff on the procedures.
Urologist Stephen Weinstein, MD, led a three-hour procedure to remove Bobby’s left kidney. Minutes later, urologist Mark Wakefield, MD, the director of University Hospital’s renal transplant program, began the five-hour surgery to transplant the kidney into Bob. Wakefield attached the organ to the iliac artery above Bob’s bladder. Bob’s two failing kidneys were not removed and will either continue to function poorly or cease to function altogether. In some patients, the native kidneys are removed due to infection or cancer risk.
Bob’s body now depends on the donated kidney from his son. Bob’s new kidney began working almost immediately after the surgery.
“Our experience at University Hospital was wonderful,” Vickey said. “They would ask me, ‘what do you need?’ I felt like they cared about me as much as my husband and son.”
Neither patient remembers much about their week in the hospital following the surgeries. Bob immediately started taking immunosuppressant drugs and must take them for the remainder of his life to keep his body from rejecting the donor kidney. Both endured pain shortly after the surgeries.
“The pain was tolerable,” Bobby said. “It hurt but it was tolerable. My dad gave me life and I was able to give him his life back.”
Following surgery, Bobby’s remaining kidney was functioning at 52 percent. At a follow-up visit in March, it was up to 78 percent and Khanna expects that it may return to nearly 100 percent.
Both father and son are pleased with their recovery and praise the transplant team, which includes nurse coordinators, dietitians, social workers and pharmacists, in addition to urologists and nephrologists.
“The people are just outstanding,” Bob said. “I’ve never had such a great group as the transplant people.”
Six months after the operation, Bobby is preparing to attend a police academy following his graduation from Columbia College with an associate’s degree in criminal justice. Bob and Vickey are making travel plans. Their first long-distance motorcycle trip following Bob’s transplant took them to a bike rally in Arkansas.
“I see a brighter Bob,” Vickey said. “His color is much better. I see a more intense bond between Bob and Bobby now. They’ve always been close, but I think this brought them closer.”