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Forty-four years post transplant – Maternal love that lasts a lifetime

Patient Story

Over the past four decades Michael Graham graduated from Butler University, got married, became a father and pursued a career in finance – all things made possible by the gift of love from his mother – a new kidney.

By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes, tfender1@iuhealth.org

Colleagues described Dr. Ronald S. Filo as being “30 years ahead of his time” because of his understanding about the techniques necessary for long-term kidney transplant survival.

So it may not surprise him to learn that one of his patients, Michael Graham, is living a full and healthy life 44 years after his transplant on March 20, 1975. Dr. Filo served as a professor of surgery at IU School of Medicine and chief of organ transplantation at IU Health, from 1974 to 2003. He was known as a brilliant and talented surgeon who always put his patients first. He died in February 2014 at the age of 74. Graham was his 20th kidney transplant.

And while 44 years marks a significant milestone in Graham’s life, he sees his life as normal. He’s a healthy 6 foot, two inches tall and graduated from Lawrence Central High School where he played trumpet in the concert and jazz bands and played #1 singles on the tennis team. He had no idea at the time that he was likely doing all those activities with only 10 percent of normal kidney function. He married wife Carla and became the father to a daughter Maria, 23. He obtained both his undergraduate and MBA degrees from Butler University.

“I think a key message is that through the miracle of transplantation, many like me are able to just live a normal life,” said Graham, who continues to have regular appointments with his IU Health nephrologist Dr. Dennis Mishler. His transplant coordinator is Christine Gibson.

It’s been said that all the forces on the planet could never beat a mother’s love and for Graham, it was his mother’s love that gave him that “normal life.” He was about seven when his parents first noticed discoloration in his urine. At the time he was treated for an infection. His kidney issues didn’t manifest until he was in high school. Graham is one of four children of Dr. John Graham, who worked in internal medicine at various Indianapolis area hospitals, and his wife Mary Graham.

John and Mary met at the University of North Dakota and were married in 1950. They moved to Indianapolis four years later when John began his residency at IU Health Methodist Hospital. They still live in the home where they raised all four children. Mike Graham was born at Methodist Hospital and his mom devoted her life to raising her children – taking them to swim lessons and band concerts. She served with the Children’s Bureau Auxiliary, the PTA, and Irvington Presbyterian Church and helped care for her own parents for years.

“I didn’t know much about living donors. I went to school thinking I would be an English teacher. I had no medical education and when I got married I was focused on raising a wonderful family,” said Mary, 90. When she was 46 and Mike Graham was 18, she learned quickly about what it would take to be part of a life-saving procedure.

Graham was in his second semester of his senior year in high school and he remembers not feeling well. His kidneys were failing. He and his mom were trained on dialysis and they set up the machine in their basement.

“Dialysis was so difficult, using a machine three times a week and on the machine six hours at a time. It took two hours beforehand to set up and a good hour afterwards,” said Graham. Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday evenings were filled with little else other than the life-saving treatments. “In retrospect I’m surprised I graduated on time,” said Graham.

Family members were tested to find the best match as a kidney donor and Mike Graham’s mom was the best candidate. “There was no choice as far as I was concerned,” said Mary Graham, a grandma to ten grandchildren and great grandma to one. “I’m glad I was the one. There wasn’t a moments hesitation.”

Sitting in the living room of his childhood home, Graham reflects on that time 45 years ago. “I remember having the first serious discussion in this room when my mom and dad told me how sick I was. I thought I’d get an artificial kidney and everything would be fine.”

Before the transplant Mike was diagnosed with high blood pressure and went in for surgery to remove his diseased kidneys, his spleen and appendix. He had the transplant weeks later after his recovery.

“IU didn’t have a transplant ward at the time so they took over a ward at the VA Hospital and ran it like a trauma hospital,” said John Graham. “The surgery was done at University Hospital and then they immediately moved Mike by ambulance to the VA Hospital. Mary’s surgery was significant and her recovery was longer. We had other children at home – a daughter in junior high and our son in grade school. Mary’s mom was here to help and our daughter learned to cook early. It became a family thing.”

Mary Graham has a scar half way around her stomach as a reminder of the life-saving surgery.

“What sometimes gets forgotten is that I am not the only one that has lived for 44 years with one kidney. So has my mom. That should be of comfort to donors and prospective donors,” said Mike Graham. “I decided that the greatest way to truly thank her is to take the best possible care of myself.” Over the years he’s commemorated various milestones by giving his mom bouquets of roses.

“I thought a long time ago ‘how do I thank her? I have thanked her many times but I wanted her to know what it means to me,” said Graham. “I decided the greatest way to truly thank her is to take the best possible care of myself.”

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