‘Willing to do anything’: Kirksville siblings reflect on kidney transplant 56 years ago

Published: Jan. 19, 2023 at 4:16 PM CST
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KIRKSVILLE, Mo. (KCTV) - A Missouri farmer is making history as one of the very first people to ever get a kidney transplant.

At 24, Butch Newman almost died.

“I was just lying there, waiting more or less for something to happen,” said Butch.

He was diagnosed with glomerulonephritis, a disease that causes the immune system to attack the body, which led to not one, but both of his kidneys failing.

“His parents were quite upset, very nervous, very worried,” said Dr. Ferrell Moots, who has been taking care of Newman for the last 50 years.

“We’ve been friends our whole life, childhood friends. When I was a second-year medical student, he had end-stage kidney disease, and it was time for a kidney transplant,” said Dr. Moots.

Back then, it wasn’t so easy.

“Very few transplants had ever been done at that time,” said Butch.

Butch’s would be one of the first. May 25, 1966, a day he remembers like it was yesterday. So does his sister Patty.

“We were both on gurneys,” recalled Patty. “I think we took a hold of each other’s hands and I think we’ll see you down the road.”

Getting to that road was no easy task. In a time when transplantation was rare, finding a kidney for Butch was even more challenging.

“They were trying to find a cadaver because my dad didn’t match,” she said, ”and they wouldn’t even test my mom because her health was so poor.”

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Doctors even considered experimental surgery using a chimpanzee kidney. There were concerns about using Patty as a donor since she was a new mom.

“They told my sister she couldn’t because she was of childbearing age,” said Butch.

But Patty was her brother’s best hope.

“We had such a close match; it was closer than most twins,” said Butch.

“I thought it was great I thought let’s get it done because I knew he wasn’t going to make it much longer. He was not in very good shape,” said Patty.

A Missouri kidney expert knew that the University of Colorado was one of few hospitals in the world doing transplants. So the doctor made arrangements to transfer Butch.

“Mom and I drove all night to Colorado,” said Patty.

“And then I told her I loved her and I’ll see you in a little bit,” said Butch. “You know I knew I meant life or death.”

Dr. Thomas Starzl, known as the father of modern transplantation, had performed the world’s first liver transplant at the University of Colorado Hospital in 1963. He would continue the medical miracles with the Newmans.

“Cut me from the middle of the stomach to the middle of my back, and they took a rib out to get a kidney out, so it wasn’t damaged,” said Patty.

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Patty’s surgery took four hours and Butch’s seven and a half.

“The thing I was worried about the most was her — that was going to be sick and hurting for a while,” said Butch.

But Patty said she had faith.

“I had so much faith and the Good Lord is with us,” Patty said. “So, I really felt like it would be OK.”

Dr. Elizabeth Pomfret, Chief of Transplant Surgery at UCHealth, said the fact Butch has survived all these years is remarkable.

“Even today, a living donor kidney – if a patient gets 20 or more years out of that kidney that’s excellent for outcomes,” said Dr. Pomfret.

Pomfret said back then, little was known about risks to Butch or Patty.

“He was one of the first patients to receive anti-lymphocyte serum, and that was a game-changer in transplantation,” said Pomfret.

“They said you shouldn’t have any more children because it’s hard on the kidney to have a baby. So, I had three more,” laughed Patty.

Three generations later, the family is still growing, and Patty is her brother’s hero.

“When you love your brother, you’re willing to do anything to save him,” said Patty.

She not only saved him, but she also put him in the history books with one of the longest-living transplanted kidneys in the world.

“I always said I’ll be here tomorrow, the next day that’s always the attitude I had and still kind of got,” said Butch.

This year marks 56 years since the transplant.

Butch is 80 and Patty is 79. Both are alive and well, still living in their hometown of Kirksville, Missouri.