Video by Sonya Doctorian, UCHealth
Story by Katie Kerwin McCrimmon, UCHealth
The young Missouri farmer was on the verge of death, his legs swollen “like stovepipes,” as he awaited a kidney transplant at University of Colorado Hospital back in 1966.
The surgery was still highly experimental then. Doctors had performed the first kidney transplant in the world just a decade earlier. In the 1960s, medical pioneers were still figuring out how to perform intricate transplants and — perhaps harder still — how to keep patients alive afterward.
Dr. Thomas Starzl, later dubbed “the father of modern transplantation,” performed the world’s first liver transplant at University of Colorado Hospital in 1963, making the UCHealth liver transplant program the longest-running in the world.
Starzl had done Colorado’s first kidney transplant in 1962 and was racing to keep the medical miracles coming.
Lawrence “Butch” Newman needed one fast.
Butch, then 24, had been sick since high school with a kidney disease called acute glomerulonephritis. No one knew how he got it, perhaps from a strep infection. But it had destroyed both of his kidneys, and by May of 1966, Butch’s body was turning yellow, he couldn’t excrete waste and he suffered convulsions in his hometown hospital in Kirksville, Missouri.
A Missouri kidney expert knew that University of Colorado was one of the few hospitals in the country then doing transplants. The doctor made arrangements for a transfer, and an air ambulance flew Butch to Denver on May 25, 1966.
To keep the farm and family afloat, neighbors helped plant the Newmans’ crops that spring, freeing Butch’s parents to be with him in Colorado as much as possible. At the hospital, a small team of nurses and doctors worked to keep Butch alive with fledgling kidney dialysis until they could find a donated kidney for him. They needed someone with relatively rare type B+ blood.
On the verge of death, then ‘a perfect match’
Weeks passed. Holidays usually meant more car accidents. Maybe someone else’s tragedy over Memorial Day weekend or the Fourth of July would give Butch a shot at survival. Alas, no kidneys from deceased donors surfaced.
By mid-July, Starzl warned Butch and his dad that “time was running out.” The doctors were considering using a chimpanzee kidney.
That’s when Butch’s younger sister, Patty, sprang into action. Then 22 and a mother of a 10-month-old daughter, Patty had been home helping tend the family’s farm, where tall stalks of corn and leafy green soybeans were inching into the summer sky.
“Mom and I got in the car and drove all night. He was running out of time to find a kidney,” said Patty Newman Byrn, who was then Patty Coy. (Her first husband, Richard, died in 2004.)
Earlier in the spring, Patty had offered to be tested to see if she was a match for her brother.
But doctors told her she couldn’t donate since she was “of childbearing age.”
This time, she told them to scrap those rules.
“Let’s just test me,” Patty told the doctors.
She ended up being a perfect match for her brother, “better than identical twins,” the doctors told her.
Before allowing Patty to donate her kidney, however, the team warned her that she should not have more children since pregnancy can put stress on the mother’s kidneys. They also required her to get her husband’s written permission since he’d have to raise their baby daughter on his own if she died during the surgery.
Her husband quickly supported her.
“Go ahead,” he told her. “I’d do if it was my brother.”
One of the longest lasting transplanted kidneys in the world
Thanks to Patty, Butch survived.
“I went from being dead to being alive,” Butch said.
Since kidney transplants were so new then, referred to as “radical surgeries” in newspaper accounts at the time, doctors initially gave Butch a 10% chance of surviving one year. He was one of the first patients ever to receive a new anti-rejection medication called antilymphocyte serum.
“They didn’t know if it would kill or cure,” Butch said.
But he eagerly participated in early medical trials.
“I didn’t have any other choice.”
After the transplant, Butch had to stay for weeks in the hospital, then months in Denver as nurses and doctors monitored his new kidney. Butch’s team warned him he might never walk again after suffering extensive neuropathy from swelling before the transplant.
Within weeks, however, Butch proved them wrong. On breaks with his dad away from the hospital, Butch practiced walking at Denver’s old airport where there were “lots of chairs to rest.”
Once he had survived a year, his team theorized that his transplanted kidney might make it just 10 years.
Butch made it much, much longer.
This year marks 56 years since the transplant, and an unassuming farmer now boasts one of the longest lasting transplanted kidneys in the world.
Butch, 80, and Patty, 79, are alive and well and living still in their hometown in Missouri. Patty and her husband live on the “old home place,” the farm where they grew up. Butch and his wife, Louise, live less than a mile away.
They are the proud parents of a son, Larry, who farms with them, along with their daughter-in-law, Hayley, and their 4-year-old grandson, Lucas.
Patty ignored doctors’ advice not to have more children. After the transplant, she went on to have three more children. Along with her four children, she now has 24 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. She also works as a bookkeeper in Kirksville, the same job she has worked for 34 years. She loves her job and has no plans to retire.
To what do Butch and Patty attribute their health and longevity?
“You just don’t give up,” Patty said. “There’s not a quitting bone in us.”
Butch credits perseverance, a positive attitude and some divine intervention.
“The good Lord was taking care of us.”
Transplanted kidney that lasts 56 years ‘extraordinary by any metric’
Butch’s survival all of these years — and the kidney’s longevity — is simply remarkable said Dr. Elizabeth Pomfret, Chief of Transplant Surgery at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital, now located on the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora.
“Today we have all of these advances, and if a patient gets 20 years or more from a living-donor kidney, that’s excellent,” Pomfret said. “It’s really incredible to have a kidney that lasts more than 30 years. And 56 years is just extraordinary.”
Pomfret is carrying on the innovative work that Starzl started in Colorado decades ago. She got to meet her predecessor before Starzl died at age 90 in 2017.
Back in the early days, organ transplantation was a new frontier, just like travel to space.
“So much wasn’t known. Doctors had to learn from people like Butch,” Pomfret said. “What does happen after a transplant? Maybe he’ll live a year. Well, he beat that. Maybe he’ll make it to five years. Then, he has a child. Oh my God. Nobody knew what immunosuppression was going to do to fertility. Would he die of some type of cancer since he needed all these medications to alter his immune system? And, here he is, 56 years later on a tractor. It’s unbelievable.”
Pomfret saluted Patty for making it all possible.
“Patty’s act of heroism to be a donor for her brother can’t be overstated. It’s extraordinary. And she really had very little information to go on,” Pomfret said.
Patty led the way when very few people were brave enough to volunteer. She and donors like her have created a legacy that now saves thousands of lives every year, Pomfret said.
“Organ donors today have these same virtues and a sense of wanting to help someone in need, no matter what the cost is to them. It’s an incredible act of selfless love,” Pomfret said.
Fishing, farming and raising puppies
Well before Patty got tested and saved her brother’s life, she had a strong hunch they’d be a match.
The siblings always had been close.
Growing up 20 months apart on the family farm, with no other brothers or sisters and few close neighbors, Butch and Patty entertained each other raising puppies, fishing and playing in ditches.
“We got along pretty good most of the time,” Butch said.
“As long as I did whatever he told me,” Patty added with a laugh.
The kids helped their folks, Lonnie and Virginia, with the farm too. Butch started driving a tractor at age 8. To reach the clutch with his feet, he had to wedge himself down on the cabin floor and press his back against the seat. Together, the siblings attended a one-room schoolhouse through the eighth grade before going to town for high school.
Butch first got sick with kidney disease in high school. By his early 20s, his illness was getting worse and worse until he suffered convulsions on May 21, 1966, and went into a coma. That’s when the air ambulance flew him to Denver, and Patty soon followed.
Apprehension before the transplant: ‘It was a big deal back then’
Living donor organ donation: How you can help save a life
- Who? Anyone age 18 or older who is in good health can donate a kidney.
- How? Healthy people have two kidneys and need just one to function normally.
- Learn more about living organ donation. Or, if you’re interested, fill out a questionnaire.
- Or call 720-848-0855 for more information.
Not a perfect match? You can still donate a kidney. Doctors can use ‘paired matches.’
- If you’re not a perfect match for someone who needs a kidney, transplant experts can arrange “paired matches.”
- What’s a paired match? The donor’s kidney can go to another person for whom it’s a match, while a recipient you know can get a different donated kidney.
- UCHealth participates in an international program that makes paired donations easier.
Why living donation works so well:
- If the living donor is a blood relative with a genetic match, the risk of organ rejection goes down.
- A kidney from a living donor typically works sooner and better than a kidney from a deceased donor. It also lasts longer, much like Patty Newman Byrn’s kidney.
The siblings still vividly remember the morning of July 29, 1966. Both tear up as they recall meeting on gurneys in the hospital hallway before nurses took them in the elevators to travel to separate operating rooms.
“I wasn’t scared,” Patty said. “We were young. You don’t feel like anything bad can happen to you.”
Butch wasn’t afraid either.
“I had faith in the doctors,” he said.
But both felt the import of the surgeries and the fears their parents were facing.
“It was really hard on Mom and Dad. When you have all of your family going in for surgery, and you don’t know what the outcome is going to be, it’s hard,” Patty said. “It was a big deal back then.”
The siblings talked as they met in the hallway.
“We took ahold of each other’s hand and I said, ‘I’ll see you down the road.’” Patty recalled.
Butch knew it was a life-or-death moment.
His biggest fear was that Patty would be in a lot of pain.
“I didn’t want her hurting. Then, boom, it was time to go down,” Butch recalled.
“I told him that I loved him and that I’d see him later,” Patty said.
“I told her I loved her and I’d see her in a little bit,” Butch said.
For their parents, the hours of waiting were torture.
Their dad was a “nervous Nellie.”
Their mom was stoic and strong. She had endured health challenges of her own.
“She was sick a lot when we were little. She had bleeding ulcers. They took her gallbladder and 3/5 of her stomach out. Still, she was always positive,” Patty said.
But as doctors tried to save her son’s life by doing a major surgery on her daughter, Virginia was scared. She prayed in the hospital chapel, then anxiously awaited news about the couple’s only children.
“She always said it was the worst day of her life until it all came out fine,” Patty said.
The surgeries took place in separate operating rooms. Dr. Thomas Marchioro removed Patty’s kidney and Starzl immediately placed it in Butch’s body. Patty’s surgery took about four hours; Butch was done after about 7 ½ hours.
These days, the surgery to donate a kidney is much faster and requires only a low-risk, minimally-invasive procedure.
Back then, Patty endured full abdominal surgery and Marchioro removed one of her ribs to get to her left kidney. She was very sore and sick afterward and had to stay in the hospital for nine days. She left with a large semi-circular scar that stretched from her belly around her side to her back.
Butch, on the other hand, felt significantly better almost immediately as Patty’s kidney quickly started producing urine.
“I never was on dialysis again,” Butch said. “Dr. Starzl was the best in the world.”
With his body finally able to process waste again, Butch’s swelling began going down and his appetite increased. He had gotten down to just 99 pounds before the transplant and was eager to pack on pounds and rebuild his strength.
Butch recovered on the 8th floor of the hospital that was then called Colorado General and was located in Denver at east 9th Avenue and north Colorado Boulevard. (UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital later moved to Aurora.)
Butch remained in the hospital for a few weeks, then he and his dad stayed in Denver through the fall so the transplant team could closely monitor him.
From walking to the airport to trips to the dog park: a path to recovery
Her transplanted kidney turns 100 this month
Nancy Wennblom Ludwig’s mom gave her life twice.
The first time came, of course, when Wilma Wennblom gave birth to her daughter in 1946.
The second time came back in 1963 when Wilma donated a kidney to her daughter who was then 17 and gravely ill.
Nancy is now 76, and for all of these years, her mom’s kidney has kept her healthy, happy and grateful.
Like Butch Newman, Nancy was one of the first people in the U.S. to receive a kidney transplant. Her surgery took place on October 7, 1963. Like Newman, she received her kidney in Denver at the University of Colorado Hospital, then known as Colorado General.
This month, the kidney Nancy received will turn 100.
Nancy’s mom was on the cusp of her 41st birthday when she gave her daughter one of her kidneys. (Wilma is no longer alive. Her birthday is coming up on October 27.) Counting the 59 years Nancy has had the kidney, plus the 41 years it spent in Wilma’s body, the kidney turns a century old this year.
After her successful transplant, Nancy went on to marry her husband, Don, and the couple had three children. Nancy always has felt extraordinarily lucky that her mom and Dr. Thomas Starzl teamed up to save her life.
“We’ll see about that,” the determined young man thought to himself.
Then, he got busy recovering.
“They wanted to put braces on me. I told them, ‘No. I don’t think so.’”
Denver’s old airport used to be minutes from the hospital. Butch and his dad figured out that the concourses provided a great place to practice walking. If Butch got tired or felt off balance, he could easily find a chair and rest for a few minutes.
The farmers, who were more accustomed to flatlands, also ventured on regular outings to the mountains. And, there were memorable trips to the old greyhound dog-racing track in Commerce City.
Any time Butch ventured away from the hospital, he had to take a “pee jug” with him.
“They were collecting every drop of pee. We had to keep track of what we drank and they measured the pee and tested it to see if the kidney was taking the poisons out. So, we just gathered up our pee jugs, and off we went to the dog park,” Butch said, grinning.
“Dad and I knew zero about dogs,” Butch said.
But one time, they bet $2 on two random dogs.
“We decided they looked all right. They ran the race and won. It paid $127. We went back to the hospital with our pee jugs and our cash and all the nurses had a big laugh.”
Butch grew close with the staff and his fellow transplant patients.
Every Wednesday, all of the patients returned for long check-ups at Starzl’s weekly transplant clinic.
Nurse Nancy Barfield, now 83 and retired in Wyoming, managed the clinic for 25 years. She got to know Butch well and still keeps in touch with him and his wife, Louise, whom Butch met and married six years later.
Barfield remembers Butch being in critical condition before Patty saved his life. (Barfield always called him Larry.)
“The poisons build up in your body. Dialysis will take it down a little, but it was really primitive in those days. Dialysis was like a big washing machine,” she said. “It was really sad. Larry was getting sicker and sicker.”
The wait for a kidney was excruciating.
“In the early days, there weren’t any donors. It’s not like today. He was pretty close to dying,” Barfield said.
She loved her work, but the struggles in the early days of transplantation were tough to witness.
“There were ups and downs. A lot of people were dying. It broke our hearts when we lost patients. It was all quite experimental,” Barfield said.
The doctors hadn’t yet figured out which anti-rejection medications worked best and at what doses. In some people, immunosuppressants caused patients to develop fatal cases of pneumocystis pneumonia, an illness that later killed many early AIDS patients.
“They’d be getting treated with oxygen tents and you’d know they were doomed,” Barfield said.
There was a lot of sadness, but great joy, too, for people like Butch.
Barfield remembers his instant rejuvenation after the transplant.
“It was like night and day,” Barfield said. “They would come back from surgery with a catheter and they’d get so excited when the urine would come through. The BUN (blood urea nitrogen levels – which measure kidney function) would come down, and their personalities would come out. That’s the beautiful and exciting part of working in transplants: seeing all of these changes and now, all these children and grandchildren of these early transplant patients.”
A remarkable era in medical advancements as doctors pioneered transplants
Barfield worked closely with Starzl for several years until he moved to the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 1981.
“He was brilliant. His mind never quit. He always wanted to push forward. He was working with new drugs all of the time,” she said.
Butch benefited greatly from Starzl’s work on anti-rejection medications, although the shots he had to receive weekly were painful.
“It hurt really badly. It burned,” Butch said.
Still, he didn’t mind being a lab rat of sorts.
“It was better than dying,” he said.
To this day, Butch takes anti-rejection medications every day, the same drugs he has taken all of these years.
Starzl loved keeping close tabs on patients both immediately after transplants and for years afterward.
“He would come by and want to know about the kidney input and outtake for everyone,” Barfield said.
She and fellow nurses knew they always had to have data ready.
“We’d go over all of the statistics. He was that kind of person. He would look at you and wait for an answer.”
Back home for Thanksgiving
After leaving Missouri in a coma on that emergency flight to Colorado back in May of 1966, Butch was able to return home on his own two feet just in time to celebrate Thanksgiving that year.
While recuperating, he spent the winter working as a mechanic at a tractor dealership.
“That gave me a warm place to get stronger,” he said. “I used to do a lot of welding.”
Milestones came and went.
Butch made it to a year after the surgery and was thrilled to have beaten the longshot odds he’d been given of surviving.
He got busy farming. Then six years later, met his future wife at a bowling alley.
Louise had grown up in nearby Novinger as a “town girl.” But after a few dates, she fell in love with Butch, married him in 1972, and quickly fell in love with the farming life too.
“I like the quiet. You’re not close to anybody. I like the country life. And there’s something special about growing corn and soybeans.”
Butch and Louise always worked together. She became a pro at driving trucks. They farmed their own land and took their combine on the road to harvest other people’s crops too.
Before long, 10 years had passed since the transplant, then another decade and another and another and another.
Butch’s favorite job is running the combine.
“I love it so much: cutting the grain. More than anything, I love cutting wheat. It’s a pretty crop.”
Soon after marrying, Butch and Louise decided to start a family. In the back of his mind, Butch assumed he would die young, so the couple decided to have just one child.
“I was only supposed to live 10 years with this kidney. I thought to myself, ‘If I can just live long enough to play ball with him and get him raised, I’ll be thankful.’”
He got his wish.
Their son, Larry, is now 47 and is thrilled to be raising a son of his own.
Small town doctor who makes house calls wondered if he’d ever see Butch again
Over the years, Butch’s primary care provider, Dr. Ferrel Moots, has kept a close watch on his friend and patient.
“I still make house calls for my favorite people,” said Moots, now 78, as he sits at Butch and Louise’s kitchen table.
Moots had been a second-year medical student and was training in family medicine at the local Kirksville hospital when he saw Butch in dire straits back in 1966.
“He was emaciated. Nothing was sticking to him and he didn’t have good color,” Moots said.
There was little the Missouri medical team could do to help.
“Kidney dialysis wasn’t available everywhere across the country then. He was in end-stage renal disease,” Moots said.
The emergency flight amounted to a medical Hail Mary. As his friend departed, Moots had a sinking feeling.
“I was wondering if I was ever going to see him again,” Moots said.
But Butch’s will to live — and determination to farm again — were obvious by the time he returned home.
“He’s an amazing person. His mom and dad were tough. Farm people don’t lay around and whine. He wanted to live and farm and take care of his family,” Moots said.
Butch’s description is even simpler: “You get up. You get out. Or you die.”
Along with working, Butch also made frequent trips back to Colorado for checkups.
“At first, I used to go back every two weeks, then once a month, then every two or three months,” Butch said. “All the patients came back for checkups.”
As he healed, Butch became a local celebrity of sorts.
“Everyone was amazed. It was an earth-moving event. Here was this young Missouri farm boy getting a kidney transplant in Denver. Those things were unheard of around here,” Moots said.
A special anniversary and a congratulatory letter
After becoming her brother’s hero, Patty went back to business as usual. She never had any health challenges. Many people have sought her advice about transplantation and she’s become a proud advocate for organ donation.
“I’ve never had any kidney problems. I recommend it to everyone without a second thought,” she said.
Every year, around the time of the transplant anniversary, the siblings and their spouses celebrate with a dinner at a favorite restaurant near a lake outside town.
For the 50th anniversary, they held a big party.
Butch also received a letter from Dr. Starzl.
“Congratulations on your 50 years of life, made possible by your sister’s wonderful kidney,” Starzl wrote. “What a wonderful accomplishment your survival has been. You have become one of the long-standing keepers of the kidney transplantation flame with benefits to your sister as well as yourself.”
Starzl, himself, had just turned 90.
He kept in contact over the years with Butch and many other patients.
“He was a very gracious man,” Barfield said.
Starzl died less than a year later in March of 2017 and was heralded as a groundbreaking medical pioneer.
The keys to survival: mental toughness and love
Sometimes the siblings’ early role in organ donation seems like no big deal.
“I don’t even really think about it. I just take it for granted,” Patty said.
At other times, they’re in awe that 56 years have passed.
Moots encourages others to follow in Patty’s footsteps. He sums up the advice of a country doctor this way: “Eat your greens. Say your prayers. Live by the golden rule and donate your organs.
“Organ donation has saved so many people’s lives. It’s one of the best things you can do in life. Period,” he said.
Butch has appreciated Patty’s gift every day since 1966. His kidney health has been excellent ever since. He’s had some heart troubles, but has done well after a quadruple bypass surgery in 2000.
“I’ve lived a completely normal life,” he said.
Barfield, the transplant nurse, credits Butch’s attitude.
“Mental toughness plays a big role. All of these patients were walking on thin ice. Their lives were almost taken away. Then, life was given back,” she said. “He always took good care of himself.”
Butch credits the big guy upstairs.
“It’s a miracle,” he said.
He’s also forever grateful to his little sis.
The affection goes both ways. Said Patty: “It’s all about love and family.”