Banker by day, and sports enthusiast by night, Jim Ely, served as a football referee for 38 years. Now that he’s 83 years old, he gets his football fix and thrill from standing by the field as a home-game timekeeper for the Dallas Cowboys. This January 2015, Ely receives the honor of becoming the official timekeeper for the first College Football Playoff National Championship, set to take place just 5 weeks after his game-changing kidney transplant at UT Southwestern Medical Center.
It was kidney disease that forced Ely to retire from his job as a referee back in 2005. The first few years had only required him to comply with medication, but eventually, after further deterioration of his kidneys, he had to elect hemodialysis. For the past 3.5 years, he’s had to spend several hours, thrice a week on the procedure, while maintaining a strictly controlled food and fluid intake. While this arrangement still allowed him to work as a timekeeper for the Cowboys, he pursued a kidney transplant in order to regain quality of life.
Ely was quick to be reminded, however, that while transplants can be hugely beneficial and life-saving, they still require long-term maintenance. “It’s not an easy thing. They have a major surgical procedure, the medication burden, just coming to clinic so often to be checked – it’s three times a week at first – all that can be challenging for individuals,” said Dr. Miguel Vazquez, a Professor of Internal Medicine, and the Medical Director of Kidney Transplantation at UT Southwestern. As Ely’s nephrologist at UT Southwestern, Dr. Vazquez explained these important points to him, but at the same time assured him that his otherwise good health and positive attitude could make coping with the transplant at his age much easier.
According to the Organ Procurement and Transplant Network (OPTN), in 2013, 16,985 kidney transplants were performed in the US alone, and today, there are over 100,000 patients suffering from end-stage renal disease (ESRD), still waiting for a suitable donor. Fortunately for Ely, a new set of OPTN guidelines took effect last December 2014, allowing more kidneys to become available to older patients.
Ely received the long-awaited call on December 4. The next day, the procedure was performed at St. Paul University Hospital under surgeon Dr. Juan Arenas‘ care, which made him both the oldest to ever receive a kidney transplant at the facility, and the last. The day after that, on December 6, the 194 transplant patients, Ely included, were transferred to UT Southwestern’s newly opened Clements University Hospital. Here, his transplant was assessed to be taking well and was already up and running, even without assistive dialysis. Dr. Arenas, a Professor of Surgery and Chief of the Division of Surgical Transplantation at UT Southwestern, said, “He’s just an incredible individual who is a role model for patients. Some younger patients are not as motivated as he is. … We’ve learned from him. It’s very reassuring that age is not a contraindication to transplant. It’s more like your mental – your psychological age – that really makes the difference.”