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The Catalyst

Man supports research in honor of niece

By Allyson Crowell
Office of Development & Alumni Affairs

Bob Richards and niece Roseann Richards ring the nursing station bell after a successful transplant. Roseann donated a kidney to her Uncle Bob, a polycistic kidney disease patient. photo provided

In March of 2012, Bob Richards sat down to write an email to the people closest to him, to share with them something that he’d kept secret for years. In the subject line, he typed, “Bob Richards’ Bad Kidneys.”

His message unfolded with his familiar, easygoing tone:

“Just sending you an email on a medical condition I have that we think, over time, is going to be causing me some problems.”

Bob not only had polycystic kidney disease but had been living with the illness for about six years, so long that he now needed a transplant. He had chosen not to tell anyone about this diagnosis except for his wife, Kathy, and his siblings. He wanted to carry on his career as vice president of product support for an international material handling company, and he didn’t want to worry his children, who had careers and lives of their own.

“I am eventually going to ask family/friends if anyone wants to be considered as being a living donor match... Kathy was my first volunteer to, at least, be considered. I continue to understand why I love her so much.”

Ten people replied to Bob’s email, every one of them volunteering to find out if they matched. His two brothers, wife and sister-in-law all tested, but even among those who matched, none could get the medical clearance necessary to proceed with organ donation. Roseann Richards, Bob’s 30–year–old niece, was fifth on the list.

She took off time from her job as a pediatric pharmacist in Raleigh to come to MUSC and spent the rest of the day touring Charleston with her aunt and uncle. When the call came the following week at work, Roseann cried. She had matched, and she qualified to donate.

“I was so excited for Bob but absolutely petrified for myself,” Roseann said. As a health care provider, she knew she faced a major decision. In addition to surgery and recovery, Roseann worried about possible complications in pregnancy later on. “Part of you wants to be the match, but part of you says, ‘Please don’t let me be the match.’”   

She took advice from the transplant coordinator and waited a few days before making a final decision. But instead of calling the transplant coordinator back, she called her Uncle Bob.
Prabhakar Baliga, M.D., MUSC’s chief of the Division of Transplant Surgery, removed Bob’s kidneys on April 2 to make room for the donor kidney, and Bob spent several weeks on dialysis prior to the transplant. Roseann returned to Charleston for surgery with Charles Bratton, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Surgery, on April 24. When she woke up after the procedure, a medical student came from Bob’s room to visit her.

“She said that the first thing Bob asked when he came out of anesthesia was, ‘How is Roseann?’ She had never seen that before,” Roseann remembered. “I started crying, and it just made my abdomen hurt even worse.”

The next day Roseann and her uncle both walked from their rooms to meet at the nursing station, where transplant patients ring a bell to signal a procedure’s success. Bob and Roseann rang it together.

The Richards family always has been close. Roseann grew up in Wisconsin, a few hours from Bob’s home in Minnesota. His children are around her age, and the families often spent time together during Roseann’s childhood. But Bob never asked why Roseann agreed to be his donor.

“I don’t even think I know why I did it but, right away, my gut instinct was to say ‘yes,’ ” Roseann said. “I did it for Bob. I felt like if I knew I wasn’t going to do this, I shouldn’t have done the preliminary testing.”

Bob still chokes up when he talks about his niece’s gift. “When I look at what Roseann did for me, how do you repay someone for that?”

He and Kathy made a cash gift of $25,000 to MUSC this year, and they pledged $250,000 over the next several years. They also intend to raise match funding by sharing their story with friends and family. They named their gift The Roseann Richards Living Donor Education and Research Fund.

Money from the fund goes to MUSC’s Living Donor Institute, which brings together bioengineers, transplant surgeons and a host of researchers in one setting. The institute aims to educate people about the safety and importance of organ donation, a particularly important crusade in a state with one of the lowest living donor rates.

“That’s why I gave the money,” Bob said. “I’m inspired by the prospect of raising the percentage. I figure there are 320 million Americans and 100,000 people on the transplant waiting list. You should be able to find 100,000 kidneys out there.”

An awareness campaign marks the Living Donor Institute’s first step toward a national collaborative that would not only educate the public but improve the quality of transplants, reduce complications and prolong survival, plus invest in high–tech alternatives to
transplant.

Bioengineer Dr. Micheal Yost designed a 3-D printer, which could provide a future alternative to transplant. photo by Sarah Pack, Public Relations

For example, researchers at the institute study targeted delivery of drugs. Side effects from immunosuppression drugs number among the top causes of death for transplant recipients, according to transplant surgeon Satish Nadig, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Surgery. He investigates ways to target that medication specifically to an organ to keep the patient healthier.

Bob likes to tell his children that if they need kidneys later on, they can just grow their own. His joke isn’t far from the truth. Bioengineer Michael Yost, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Surgery another member of the Living Donor Institute team, designed a printer that makes it possible to take a sample from a donated organ and use it to fabricate multiple copies.

Yost put it simply: “You can have more than one recipient from a donor.”

When Roseann first learned about the gift that her uncle made in her honor – and the work that it supports – she didn’t entirely understand the magnitude, and she still struggles to find words to describe the feeling.

“I’m awestruck,” she said. “If anything, living donation and organ transplant are lucky to have Uncle Bob. He's going to be their best champion. He will put his heart and soul into transplant and living donors, and that’s something that the South, as a whole, needs.”

Editor’s note: Reprinted with permission from Thank-You Notes, Office of Development and Alumni Affairs.

August 8, 2014

 

 
 
 

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