Patient StoriesMarch 5 2024

Patient Story - Mary Bell & Dr. Joe Bailey

During this time of year, we’re often moved by acts of kindness and generosity. However, at our Center for Transplant Services in the Heart, Lung Vascular Institute at the medical center, we get to experience the gift of life on a regular basis.


Recently, Dr. Joe Bailey of Johnson City came in for his annual check-up. It’s been five years since Mary Bell, a total stranger, donated one of her kidneys to him and saved his life.


“I saw a story on the news about a schoolteacher who needed a kidney,” Mary said, “and I thought ‘I’m retired, I’m a widow, my kids are grown. I have two perfectly functioning kidneys. I could do this.’” As she continued to think more about it, Mary came to the conclusion that it wasn’t just something she could do, it was something she needed to do. When another donor came forward who was a better match for the woman that originally inspired her, Mary asked “Who else?”


For Dr. Bailey, the waiting had become agonizing. As a cardiologist watching his health deteriorate during a particularly stressful time in his career, at first, he thought he was experiencing heart failure. Soon, however, doctors confirmed that he was in Stage V kidney failure. He immediately started dialysis, which often lasted 12 hours at a time. Forced to retire due to his failing health, he was just 57 years old. Without a kidney transplant, there was nothing he could do but wait to die.


When he spoke to Dr. Oscar Grandas and Dr. Alex Cantafio at UT Medical Center, they gave him hope in a way that other doctors around the country had not. “They said, ‘We’ll get you a kidney.’ We were overjoyed. I told them that I can get by with whoever the donor is.”


From there, however, Dr. Bailey and his wife, Cyndi, waited. And waited. They kept a suitcase packed by the door for four years in case a kidney suddenly became available from an organ donor. “When I finally got the call, and they said ‘We have a kidney,’ I said, ‘Okay, we’ll get on the road.’” However, they told him that the transplant was scheduled for a date in three weeks’ time. It was then that he realized that the kidney was coming from a living donor.


Throughout the process, Mary said she felt a sense of protection and gratitude. “The staff at UT Medical Center made me feel very treasured. Everyone thanked me,” she said. “I was told at least 10-20 times that I could back out at any time. I never wavered.” When Mary checked in for the procedure, she had no information on who the recipient was. “My faith tells me to love your neighbor as yourself. I loved Dr. Joe Bailey before I ever met him.”


They met for the first time one month after the surgery. In October, they celebrated five years of friendship – and five years of life. “She totally changed my life,” Dr. Bailey said. “I was a dead man walking. I got time with my family. With my daughters. With my little dog. Time I never would have had. There’s no way I could’ve lived five years more.”


“I was a critical care nurse for 40 years, and I helped a lot of people, but I don’t think I ever saved anyone’s life.” Mary said. “Dr. Bailey says that I saved his life, and that’s a wonderful feeling. We’re just really good friends with an amazing connection now. It’s a gift that I got to do it.”


Thank you for sharing your story with us, Mary Bell and Dr. Joe Bailey. If you’d like to consider how you might give someone the unforgettable gift of life, please visit our website for more information on the Center for Transplant Services.