Ryan Mullen was 18 when he was blindsided by the reality that he had been living his entire life with just one functioning kidney. He said he “almost fainted” when his doctor said that, for reasons that remain unknown, his only working kidney had ceased to function properly.
At a time when most teenagers are concerned about what their major will be in college, or how they’ll spend their last summer as a high schooler, Mullen was faced with his own mortality – and the need to find an altruistic kidney donor that matched his rare O-negative blood type.
Luckily, and thanks to Warwick resident, Donna Soares, he found that donor and had a successful transplant in 2004.
However, kidneys are donated and received with the understanding that they have a finite shelf life – spanning anywhere from less than 10 years to around 20 in the best, most compatible cases. Now 35 years old, Mullen learned in early 2016 that he would need to get his donated kidney replaced within a year, or he would be forced to go on dialysis – a much more arduous and temporary fix.
Mullen’s sister, Melissa, helped coordinate a social media campaign to spread awareness of her brother’s plight. The family decked out their cars in decals that read, “Our son needs a kidney – TYPE O BLOOD” in order to spread even more visibility around the city.
The family has multiple connections to Warwick Public Schools – where Ryan worked for years as the supervisor for K-12 math and science, and is currently the coordinator of K-12 teaching and learning – and specifically to Bishop Hendricken, where Mullen graduated from in 1999 and where his father, Dennis, was the former assistant principal.
It was after seeing a newsletter sent out by Hendricken asking for help finding a donor for Mullen that he had his prayers answered for a second time.
Michelle Sheehan-Pimental was babysitting at the time she read the newsletter in her email, and found it striking that Mullen graduated from Hendricken the same year that her son was born – who will also be a senior at Hendricken come this fall. And that wasn’t the only connection that Sheehan-Pimental felt with Mullen’s story.
“I didn’t go into it blindly. I thought about it that night and thought I want to do this,” Sheehan-Pimental said. “What about him, I don’t know. Looking at his picture and how he looked like my son when he was 18, there was some kind of connection that happened in my brain.”
Although about five other people had reached out expressing interest in donating, Sheehan-Pimental emerged as the eventual match. She went back and forth from Rhode Island Hospital for tests countless times and said she gave “more blood than I even knew existed.” On Monday, June 26, the two went into surgery.
“It honestly is the gift of life,” said Mullen on Wednesday, reflecting on his second successful kidney transplant from an altruistic donor.
The two actually met for the first time in the recovery room after the surgery was completed. After exchanging hugs and kisses and meeting members of each family, it turned out the two had more in common than they ever could have imagined, as Ryan worked directly with two good friends of Michelle.
Despite going through health complications leading up to the transplant, Mullen didn’t miss work during the school year. He had his last day on June 23 and went into surgery just three days later. Now, as he heals in recovery, Mullen is optimistic he can attend the Warwick Public School’s administrative retreat in August.
“It’s been absolutely amazing,” said Dennis, Ryan’s father. “He’s antsy at this point.”
Dennis expressed how fortunate he felt that Ryan had found two people to go through such a life-altering experience to help his son – people who were total strangers at one point.
“It does show you that there are people out there that go beyond what we see in society today,” he said. “Despite all the constant arguing and constant tension, there’s people that are gracious and people that believe in what they do. [Michelle] was committed, no doubt about that. She’s just a wonderful, wonderful person.”
Despite the selflessness of her decision, Sheehan-Pimental focused on the hope that more good could come from her action, rather than reflecting on what good her decision has wrought for Mullen and his family.
“I hope that I have inspired at least one more person to donate in Rhode Island after hearing this story,” she said. “Because the person that gives is always somehow connected to the person that gets."