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One phone call, an anonymous donor and a pilot save a Legacy Transplant Services Patient's Life

The Oregonian (Front Page, above the fold of Living Section, teased on front page of the paper)

June 26, 2013

Before his story unfolds, Rob Mullins, Legacy Transplant Services patient, has one request: "I want to thank everyone involved in making this happen," he says, "whoever they are."

A donor. Her family. The woman behind the counter at a small municipal airport in California -- the one, Mullins believes, who saw the desperation in his eyes and made a phone call. The pilot of the jet that descended from the sky less than 30 minutes later and told Mullins he'd give him a lift to Oregon, an unplanned stop and one that would happen in the nick of time.

Mullins had been on dialysis for 11 years and any longer, he says, would have so deteriorated his health he wouldn't have been eligible for a transplant.

"It was heartbreaking and humbling at the same time," he says. "All I could think about was my son and not being able to see him grow up."

Mullins figured he'd have a long wait.

Doctors told him not to leave the Portland area. If a suitable kidney became available, he needed to be nearby.

Yet, he'd missed the homecoming ceremony when his son returned from his first tour of duty in Afghanistan. He didn't want to skip April's ceremony welcoming him back from his second tour, in Asia. Mullins figured he could drive his son's Nissan to Camp Pendleton in Southern California and fly back to Portland; he'd only be gone a few days and he arranged for a dialysis session there.

He'd just pulled into a rest area south of Redding, Calif., when his phone rang. Legacy Good Samaritan's transplant coordinator told him told him a young woman was about to be removed from life support. Her kidney wouldn't be merely a suitable match for him. It was a perfect match.

When people share the same human leukocyte antigens, a type of protein, they're considered immunologically compatible -- a match.

Six proteins are routinely checked. On average, two or three of the six will match in random, unrelated people, according to Dr. William Bennett, medical director of Legacy Good Samaritan's kidney transplant program.

Chances of all six proteins matching, he says, are one in 10,000.

"It's so unusual," Bennett says, "that the recipient who matches with a donor like that is given priority. That's why the kidney was for Rob, even though he hadn't waited the longest."

Still, given where Mullins was, Bennett didn't expect he'd be able to make it back to Portland by early evening, the transplant window.

After countless phone calls and online searches, none of the commercial flights leaving from nearby airports would arrive in time.

When he realized he might not make it, Mullins says, "fear ran through me like blood."

On his smartphone searching for smaller airports, he spotted a few south of Sacramento. He headed south and pulled in to one of them. It consisted of an airfield and an office building with one woman behind the service counter.

He explained his situation.

She stepped away, made a phone call and reported back.


Five or 10 minutes later, the woman's phone rang. Mullins watched a small jet land and the door open.

The woman told him the plane was for him and the flight wouldn't cost him a cent. "They're more than pleased," he recalls her saying, "to take you to Portland so you can have your surgery."

The pilot greeted him at the door and he boarded the jet. Two men in business attire were the only passengers in the six- or eight-seat plane. He doesn't know if it was a corporate jet or privately owned.

Mullins called Legacy's transplant program.

He'd be there in a few hours.

To read Rob’s full story click here