Transplant survivors gather for annual reunion
by Andrea McMaster, The Nebraska Medical Center

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Henry Mollett attends the medical center's 2006 transplant reunion.
Henry Mollett is celebrating his second chance at life.

Today, the 68-year-old Council Bluffs man is 100 pounds lighter and feeling 30 years younger after receiving a liver transplant at The Nebraska Medical Center in April 2005.

"My life changed in an instant," he said, remembering the day of his transplant.

This past weekend, Mollett joined more than 300 transplant recipients from 19 states at The Nebraska Medical Center's annual transplant reunion.

Prior to his transplant, Mollett said fluid had built-up in his stomach cavity and his liver had shut down. "The month before that I had told my wife I was preparing to die," he said. "I was one sick puppy. All that fluid caused me to gain weight. I could barely move. I struggled to get out of bed."

Now, more than a year after the transplant, Mollett jumps out of bed. "I hunt, fish and enjoy life with my grandchildren," he said. "I am so grateful for my new life."

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Transplant recipient Brian Klein of Millard, left, with Olympic bronze medalist Chris Klug. Klein received a kidney and pancreas transplant in 2001. Klug received a liver transplant in 2000 in Colorado. Klug, the honored guest at the reunion, is the first American with an organ transplant to ever compete in the Olympic Games.
In all, nearly 1,000 people attended the event - celebrating 36 years of organ transplantation in Omaha. The reunion also was an opportunity for patients and their families to reunite with friends and medical staff they met during their stay at the hospital.

Today, we'll meet some of the survivors who attended the reunion.

John Burroughs and his wife, Chris, made a special trip from Des Moines to Omaha to say thank you to a group of doctors who John says saved his life last January.

"Every day I say to my wife I still can't believe I lived through it all," Burroughs said.

In 2004, Burroughs learned he needed a liver transplant.

"His liver was so big and it would not drain blood," his wife said. "Every day he lived, he was very miserable."

Burroughs' condition was complicated by a rare and potentially life-threatening disorder called pulmonary hypertension, which causes higher than normal pressure in the artery leading from his heart to his lungs. "I was preparing to die until my wife found a doctor at The Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha who could help," Burroughs said.

He was prescribed medication to keep his pulmonary pressure in check and in January of 2005 he underwent surgery to receive a new liver. "Sixteen days after the transplant, I was back home and feeling great," he said. "Now, a year and a half after my transplant, I feel like I've done a complete turn around. I'm going to the transplant reunion to celebrate the fact that I'm alive."

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Don Brouillette, left, and Justin Cornish, attended this weekend's reunion. Brouillette received his new heart in 1994, making him the first heart transplant at The Nebraska Medical Center. Cornish received his new heart Dec. 30, 2005.
A Hastings woman -- Janelle Ham -- attended the reunion to celebrate 31 years of life after her kidney transplant on March 11, 1975. Of all the reunion attendees, Ham had the distinction of having her transplant the longest.

Ham says her kidney problems began at birth. She suffered from pyelonephritis (kidney infection) caused by repeated urinary tract infections, which led to permanent kidney damage. Ham had her first kidney removed at age 8 and her second kidney removed at 17, counting only on dialysis to keep her alive until her kidney transplant.

"I still get very emotional about my second chance at life," Ham said. "After my transplant, I went to college, got married, gave birth to two children and work 40 hours a week at a local bank in Hastings. These are all things I would not have been able to do if it were not for a donor's family choosing to give their loved one's organs."

It's a tell tale sign that Matthew Benes' kidney transplant at The Nebraska Medical Center in February was successful. The 12-year-old Lincoln boy is growing taller every minute.

"After the transplant, he grew an inch in 12 days," said his mother, Sharon.

Matthew also is active again. "A new kidney has really changed his life," his mother said. "Before the transplant, Matthew wasn't able to play sports. Now he's joined a basketball team."

Benes was only a few days old when his doctor discovered his kidneys weren't working right due to a genetic birth defect. They took one of them when he was 6 months old, followed by many surgeries his first 18 months. He had a reprieve - until the spring of 2005.

"It was easy to tell Matthew was in pain," Sharon Benes said. "He was grumpy and tired all the time because he wasn't able to sleep at night."

Doctors had told the family Matthew would need a kidney transplant before his 12th birthday. That day came one month before he turned 12 when his mother donated one of her kidneys.

"When he was 2 years old, I began praying that I'd be able to give him a kidney someday, that I would be a match," she said. "I was so thankful that I could be the one to help my son."

Joseph Paladino traveled to the reunion from St. Joseph, Mo., to celebrate his life.

In 1977, Paladino was in a serious car accident and underwent seven surgeries in three months and received several blood transfusions. Twenty years later, Paladino was informed he had contracted the hepatitis C virus from the transfusions. The virus infects the liver, causing inflammation that results in damage of the liver tissue. Paladino would need a liver transplant to survive.

"There was a time that I wondered if I would make it," he said.

On his wife's birthday, July 15, 2003, Paladino learned he would be receiving a new liver.

"After the transplant, I could notice the difference right away," he said. "I had energy again. As a clinical social worker, I was so used to helping other people. It was so surreal for me to receive help from another person, an anonymous donor, who gave me a new chance at life."

Date Published: Tuesday, July 11, 2006