Dallas Cowboys timekeeper ready to get back to work after kidney transplant at UT Southwestern

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Jim Ely tackles life like Mean Joe Greene tackled running backs. A banker, he also worked weekends as a football referee for 38 years and still, at age 83, works as home-game timekeeper for the Dallas Cowboys.

This month, he adds a new highlight to his career: working as the timekeeper for the first College Football Playoff National Championship just five weeks after getting a kidney transplant at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

After developing kidney disease, Mr. Ely retired from working on the football field in 2005. His kidney disease was managed by medication for years, but for the last three-and-a-half years he eeded to have hemodialysis three times a week. Even on dialysis, which takes hours for each session, he was able to continue working as an NFL timekeeper for Cowboys home games, but he wanted to have a transplant so he could be more active.

Dr. Miguel Vazquez, Professor of Internal Medicine and Medical Director of Kidney Transplantation at UT Southwestern, said transplants can be challenging at first for patients of any age. "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."

Dr. Vazquez, who is Mr. Ely's nephrologist at UT Southwestern, said risks and benefits are carefully balanced whenever decisions are made about transplants, but that Mr. Ely's otherwise good health and his strong desire to do whatever is required to get healthier made him a good candidate for a transplant despite his age. He also has a strong support system in his wife, added Dr. Vazquez.

Kidney disease is common: An estimated 26 million American adults are living with chronic kidney disease, in which the kidneys slowly lose function. When patients reach end-stage renal disease, they require dialysis or a kidney transplant. The gap between the number of organs available and the number of patients awaiting a donor organ is wide. In 2013, 16,985 kidney transplants were performed nationwide; currently, there are more than 100,000 end-stage renal disease patients awaiting a transplant, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplant Network (OPTN).

There is a trend for older patients to be kidney-transplant recipients, according to OPTN. In 2013, 3,101, or 18 percent of all patients who had kidney transplants, were 65 or older, according to OPTN. New OPTN rules that went into effect in December 2014 make more kidneys available for transplant and more kidneys available to older recipients.

On Dec. 4, Mr. Ely got a call telling him there might be a donor for him. The next day, Dec. 5, he had his transplant at St. Paul University Hospital, making him both the oldest patient to ever get a kidney transplant at the hospital as well as the last patient to get a kidney transplant at the hospital. On Dec. 6, all 194 patients at St. Paul, including Mr. Ely, were transferred by ambulance to UT Southwestern Medical Center's new Clements University Hospital.

The transplant surgery went well and the new kidney began working right away. Sometimes patients have to be on dialysis for a period of time before their transplanted kidney begins working, said Dr. Juan Arenas, the surgeon who performed the transplant, but in Mr. Ely's case, the transplanted kidney worked right away.

Dr. Arenas, Professor of Surgery and Chief of the Division of Surgical Transplantation at UT Southwestern, said Mr. Ely's attitude played a role in the success of his surgery and treatment. "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," added Dr. Arenas.

Dr. Vazquez, indeed the entire team who cared for Mr. Ely before and after his transplant, also voiced admiration for Mr. Ely's determination. "This is a surgical procedure that is demanding and he has been on intense immunosuppression, high doses of some of the transplant medications. It's not only the risk of rejection, which is what we all think about, but it's also the risk of infection, the risk of electrolyte problems, fluid problems. But he's a tough guy. He wants to be healthy. Patients who want to stay healthy tend to cope better with some of the challenges that come with a transplant," said Dr. Vazquez.

Mr. Ely's sports-official highlights reel includes the 2003 National Football Conference Championship, the 2006 American Football Conference Championship, Super Bowl 40, and - soon - the 2015 College Football Playoff National Championship. "It's a real honor," said Mr. Ely. "Many, many people want to work this game."

Mr. Ely says he's delighted to be healthy enough to continue doing the work he loves.

SOURCE UT Southwestern Medical Center

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