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Transplant patient, athletic trainer helped Indianapolis Colts, high school athletes

IU Health University Hospital

Transplant patient, athletic trainer helped Indianapolis Colts, high school athletes

Both as an athlete and an athletic trainer, Robert “Bobby” Vallandingham knows what it means to care for others. When he faced health issues, he looked to IU Health and what he now credits as a “miracle.”

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

One of the highlights of Robert “Bobby” Vallandingham’s career was serving an internship with the Indianapolis Colts. As an athletic trainer, he was on the sidelines assisting with injury prevention and rehabilitation.

It was a career he first learned about in high school when he shadowed a trainer. He went on to receive bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in athletic training. As a former baseball player, he knew the importance of his role on and off the field.

He says there are a number of times when he was there to offer reassurance to injured athletes. As a high school athletic trainer he remembers one particular football standout that tore his ACL during a preseason scrimmage.

“Something happened in the end zone and then next thing I knew he was down. His season was over and he was devastated. I was there to console him and his parents,” said Vallandingham, who turned 31 last month. He went on to accompany the athlete through surgery.

Vallandingham didn’t know it then but there were lessons to be learned through that tragedy.

Three years ago he began experiencing strange symptoms including stomach pain, numbness in his hands and feet, and unexplained weight loss. His gastroenterologist and neurologist in Terre Haute referred him to IU Health where neurology tests determined he has a rare genetic disorder named mitochondrial neurogastrointestinal encephalopathy disease (MNGIE Syndrome). The disease causes high levels of protein thymidine in the body.

“My thymidine was off the charts and was attacking me internally – my nerves and over years my liver,” said Vallandingham. “Doctors decided that a liver transplant would be necessary.”

October is National Liver Awareness Month – encouraging people to respond like Vallandingham did. He listened to his body and sought out expert advice. According to the CDC, about 1.8 of all Americans are diagnosed with liver disease. Many require life-saving measures such as a liver transplant.

On the evening of Nov. 15, 2019 and into the morning of Nov. 16, 2019, IU Health surgeons Dr. Chandrashekhar Kubal and Dr. Richard Mangus performed liver transplantation on Vallandingham.

“They were a lifesaver,” said Vallandingham. “The change was dramatic. Before transplant I was wheelchair bound and was on pain medication. Two days post transplant my thymidine levels were down. I began walking without assistance, got off of pain medication and began to stabilize my weight,” he said. He continues to monitor his lab work with IU Health’s Dr. Marco Lacerda but otherwise, says he feels amazing.

Similar to when he consoled injured athletes, Vallandingham said, “In that moment I needed help. They saved my life.”

He is also thankful to his community of athletes and parents in Terre Haute for raising funds for medical expenses and supporting him on the sidelines with encouraging words and get well wishes.

“And if there is any group of people who deserve praise, it’s the transplant nurses at IU Health,” said Vallandingham. “They are the grinders, the supporters. They came in and calmed me down when I was anxious and helped console me when I was in pain.”

He doesn’t think he’ll be back on the field with athletes any time soon, but he does hope to pursue a faculty position and teach future athletic trainers.

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