He was dying and he knew it.
Dennis Molfese had dealt with kidney disease for a decade, but his condition became dire in 2016. His health was deteriorating quickly – with only 4 percent kidney function, the 71-year-old University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor was sleeping 16 hours a day and his blood pressure rose to 200 over 180, putting him at severe risk for stroke.
“In the United States, 21 people die each day from this disease. I thought I was going to be one of them,” Molfese, a neuropsychologist in Nebraska’s Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior, said.
Molfese started dialysis. It helped, but for how long? He’d been on the organ transplant waiting list for more than three years. Molfese felt he was out of options: He began informing people, including the center’s director, David Hansen, that the situation was grim.
Hansen, who had succeeded Molfese as director of the cutting-edge center located in Memorial Stadium, was familiar with living donor kidney transplants and asked Molfese if he had considered it.
“I really didn’t think it was a good idea because I didn’t want anyone I knew to put themselves at risk for me,” Molfese said, citing the potential dangers of major surgery. “But David appealed to me to reconsider.”
Hansen sent out emails to colleagues, friends and family of Molfese inquiring to see if anyone would consider being a live donor, and when he sent out those emails, he put himself at the top of the list.
“I had seen stories and had given it serious thought that I would probably help if I ever knew someone in that situation,” Hansen said.
For Hansen to give his kidney to Molfese, they had to be a match. After an initial round of testing, they found out it wasn’t possible. But by working with the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Nebraska Medicine, Hansen and Molfese became a part of an 18-person transplant chain – nine donors and nine recipients – which was the largest internal transplant chain ever completed in Nebraska.
On Feb. 27, Molfese received the kidney of a 52-year-old grandmother – and was given a new birthday, as he calls it. Hansen’s kidney was transplanted into another recipient. Both men made quick recoveries.
Molfese and Hansen were able to meet many of the donors and recipients in the chain in Omaha on June 8 during an event at Nebraska Medicine celebrating the successful transplant chain. Before traveling to the event, Molfese said he was ecstatic for the opportunity to meet and thank the woman whose kidney he received.
“I hope she’ll let me hug her,” he said. “I usually get teary when I talk about it because I have so much gratitude for her and Dave.”
Molfese said he feels better now than he has in years. He takes anti-rejection medications and gets weekly blood tests, but said it’s a trivial thing compared to having a new lease on life.
For his part, Hansen was looking forward to the event and meeting others in the chain, but said even if he never met the recipient of his kidney, that would be OK. He’s seen how such a gift has affected his friend and colleague.
“It’s been gratifying to see Dennis recover and doing well,” he said. “I’m very glad I did it.”