Conway firefighters team up for kidney transplant

By Tammy Keith Originally Published March 3, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated March 1, 2013 at 12:42 p.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Conway firefighter Mike Cullum, 37, left, received a kidney from fellow firefighter Billie Carter, 42. Other firefighters offered to be donors, but Carter said he matched so well it was like the men were siblings. Both said their faith helped them through the process.

Conway firefighter Billie Carter is the kind of guy who would give someone the shirt off his back, his last dime — or a kidney.

The recipient of Carter’s organ donation is fellow Conway firefighter Mike Cullum of Greenbrier.

“It was the right thing to do,” Carter said, with his characteristic down-to-earth demeanor.

To him, it just shows the closeness among firefighters.

“I have two families; I have one at home and one at the fire service,” Carter said.

“When one of my brothers needed help, I was the one blessed enough to pass all the tests and donate a kidney.”

The match was so perfect it astounded doctors, both men said.

“They were like, ‘Something’s got to be wrong.’ They did extra tests,” Cullum said.

Positive results just kept coming.

“It was just meant to be,” Cullum said. “I think pretty much God had that planned for the most part.”

It was determined in September that Carter was a match.

“From there, it was a whirlwind deal,” Carter said.

The transplant surgery was Oct. 16 at Baptist Medical Center in Little Rock.

Doctors told Cullum that Carter’s kidney “pinked up” immediately and started working.

Cullum was back at the Conway Fire Department before Thanksgiving, as a safety officer.

He took the desk job to be home nights with his family, not because of his health, he said.

Last week was engineer Carter’s first day back at Station 2 on East German Lane.

Carter had a complication after the transplant surgery — he had a hernia and had to undergo another surgery in January.

He said he’s fine now, and he is telling his story to be an advocate for organ donation.

His attitude has changed because of Cullum.

To be honest, Carter said, the idea of organ donation “almost freaked me out.” He was not listed as an organ donor on his driver’s license.

Cullum said he was born with a kidney disease, IgA nephropathy, that most often affects males. He didn’t realize it until symptoms cropped up three or four years ago.

“I had some little blood-pressure issues, and they started trying to figure out what was causing it,” Cullum said.

Blood tests pointed to kidney problems, he said, and in January 2010 doctors diagnosed the disorder through a biopsy.

“They said, ‘You’re going to have to have a transplant — there’s nothing to fix it, nothing to stop it. The kidney can’t repair itself,’” Cullum said.

“I’m the kind of guy, I don’t let a whole lot bother me. My family took it harder,” he said.

The 37-year-old Cullum and his wife, Shelley, have a 2-year-old daughter, Kendall, and other family in Greenbrier.

“It was on my mind, but I didn’t sit there and dwell on it,” Cullum said.

He said he was on the transplant list about a year.

Cullum, a Conway firefighter for 16 years, didn’t immediately share the seriousness of his condition with the Fire Department.

“He was at our station, and we knew he was going to the doctor,” Carter said.

“After we bugged the heck out of him, ‘Hey, what’s wrong?’ he said, ‘Apparently, I have a degenerative kidney function,’” Carter said.

Carter said as firefighters do to relieve stress, they joked about the situation.

“We’d say, ‘Hey, we’ll donate you a kidney — it may make your hair fall out, or make you a grouch like me, or make you bow-legged,’” Carter recalled, laughing.

“Down the line, he had to start taking dialysis and couldn’t perform his job as a fireman,” Carter said.

“He wasn’t able to put his turnouts on, jump on the firetruck and make his runs. That’s when it got serious … for me, anyway,” Carter said.

Cullum said beginning last summer, he was undergoing dialysis three times a week for three or four hours at a time.

“It wasn’t the worst thing a person would have to do, but it changes your life, and it wears you down. It’s keeping you going, but still, I was tired every day after dialysis,” Cullum said.

“Some people are on it for 20 years,” he said. “I can’t imagine. That was a relief when Billie was a match.”

A former firefighter originally was a match for Cullum, but the man had blood-pressure problems and was ruled out as a donor.

Carter said Cullum’s wife called him and asked if he’d consider organizing a fundraiser for her husband.

At that point, the donor was still viable.

“I said, ‘Let me pray about it,’” Carter said.

He organized the Fill the Boot campaign 15 years ago to help children and families at Christmas, and he’s headed up charity golf tournaments and other events.

It’s what he does.

“Truly, I have to give God all the glory,” Carter said. “He gives everyone talents — my talent is helping people, and I’ve done that since I was a little kid.”

Carter organized a charity kickball tournament for Cullum, and he thought that was his contribution.

When Carter found out the donor had fallen through, he decided to help find a match, and he talked to the nurse at Baptist Health Medical Center. She gave Carter the criteria that potential donors had to meet.

Carter hung up the phone and started going over the list in his mind: No blood-pressure problems, check; O-positive blood, check. Each one, he checked off in his mind.

He called the nurse back and told her he was interested in being the kidney donor.

When he got the packet of information in the mail about donating, he hadn’t told his wife, Salina.

“I wasn’t trying to hide anything; it was just such a natural thing to jump in and try to help somebody,” Carter said.

He said the fact that his wife and children have A-positive blood types and he could never donate a kidney to them factored into his decision.

Carter, 42, said his wife and their children, Tori, 18; Bubba, 16; and Kennedy, 12, wholeheartedly supported his decision.

“That’s what we do as a family is help people,” he said.

Give someone a kidney, and the awards will follow.

In December, Carter was unanimously named Conway Firefighter of the Year.

The 15-year veteran of the department also won the honor in 2002.

Because of the competition between the three shifts, a unanimous vote is rare, Carter said.

“There’s the brotherhood. It may not be exactly like you see in the movies, but the love and the brotherhood are there,” he said.

Earlier, after it was discovered he was a match for Cullum, Carter received the Service Above Self award.

He’ll be honored March 14 as the recipient of the Good Neighbor Award at the annual meeting of the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce.

The award is given to a person who goes “above and beyond the call of duty to help others.”

“As many awards as are out there, I wish he’d get them all,” Cullum said. “He’s been embarrassed about all that.”

“I’m not looking to be put on a pedestal,” Carter said.

He pointed out that several firefighters offered to be Cullum’s donor, but they weren’t matches.

“The Lord knew this was going to happen long before any of us were put on Earth,” he said.

“I’ve tried to shy away from the deal (the donation), but people are finding out about this, so at least I can embrace it. So that’s what I’m trying to do,” he said.

He wants people to consider organ donation. Now he and his family have it on their driver’s licenses.

Carter said other than “a few kinks” to work out, he feels healthy.

“No regrets, no regrets,” Carter said of the donation.

“I’m great now,” Cullum said, “probably better than I’ve been in years.

“The [Fire] Department couldn’t have been better. We’re a big family. Everybody donated money and were always trying to see if we needed anything.”

Cullum said it’s hard to thank someone who donates a kidney to you.

“There’s nothing you can do; nothing you can hardly say, even. Just tell them thanks every time you see them,” he said.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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