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Kidney donation keeps reservist in the fight

Jul. 31, 2011 - 12:59PM   |   Last Updated: Jul. 31, 2011 - 12:59PM  |  
Reserve Chief Information Systems Technician (SW/AW) Timothy Sullivan, second from left, and Barry McCarthy, center, pose for a picture with three chiefs at a June 26 cookout in Lowell, Mass., where McCarthy was told he'd be made an honorary chief for donating his kidney to Sullivan.
Reserve Chief Information Systems Technician (SW/AW) Timothy Sullivan, second from left, and Barry McCarthy, center, pose for a picture with three chiefs at a June 26 cookout in Lowell, Mass., where McCarthy was told he'd be made an honorary chief for donating his kidney to Sullivan. (Timothy Sullivan)
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Timothy Sullivan thought his two-decade career in the Navy was over when his doctor called in late September to say his kidneys were failing.

But one of Sullivan's neighbors, Barry McCarthy, heard the chief's story and wanted to help. He went through testing to be a donor and — when he turned out to be a match — volunteered to donate his kidney.

The late May transplant let Sullivan skip the years-long waiting list and save his career. Now, Sullivan and his fellow sailors are giving back.

In the weeks since the transplant, McCarthy has been getting letters from sailors across the U.S. who heard the story. He'll also become an honorary chief petty officer during an Aug. 5 ceremony at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

"There were a couple of times at home I cried — people calling me a hero and calling it a selfless act," said McCarthy, 48, of Lowell, Mass. "It hit home in so many ways."

Sullivan, a chief information systems technician and senior enlisted leader of Navy Intelligence Reserve Unit 0397 in Newport, first went to see his doctor in late September after experiencing some unusual symptoms. He had been sleeping a lot, felt pain in his legs and had lost about 25 pounds in the course of a few months.

When the doctor called five days later with the results of Sullivan's blood work, the chief was stunned. Tests showed less than 10 percent function in Sullivan's kidneys, putting him at risk for an aneurysm — or worse — any day. Sullivan immediately left for the hospital and begin treatment for polycystic kidney disease.

Sullivan would need to undergo dialysis three times a week and put his name on the waiting list for a kidney, which could run five years. It seemed like the end of his Navy career.

"That hurt me the hardest," Sullivan said. "If I'm going to end the Navy, I'm going to end on my own terms."

When Sullivan returned home from his initial hospital stay, McCarthy — a friend since Sullivan moved across the street six years earlier — walked over with his wife to see what was wrong.

"I said, ‘I need a new kidney to go on,' " Sullivan said. "He said, ‘What blood type are you?' I said, ‘O-positive.' He said, ‘You can have mine.' "

After months of testing, McCarthy turned out to be a perfect match for Sullivan. They completed the transplant in late May and began recovering.

McCarthy returned to work again about a month after the surgery. Sullivan hopes to return to his civilian jobs as lead quality engineer for Raytheon and part-time Apple specialist in August, and plans to return to drilling in September. Sullivan spent 10 years on active duty and is on track to be deployable as early as January.

"My whole life has really changed," Sullivan said. "I'm able to sit back and go, ‘You know, I'm going to be around for my son to graduate, and I'm going to be around to grow old with my wife.' "

Sullivan wanted to honor his friend for the donation, so he asked his chief's mess in Newport to spread the word about the donation and ask sailors to send McCarthy a letter. The chief's mess also voted unanimously to make McCarthy an honorary chief.

McCarthy, who has also received about 50 thank-you cards from sailors, said he is thrilled with the honorary title and that he could make the donation.

"To know that my organ is now in somebody, I know it's doing the work it did for me in somebody else," McCarthy said. "It feels good."

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