The heart of giving: Wife gives husband a kidney
Gary and Deb Bulman of Greenfield
Deb and Gary Bulman of Greenfield
GREENFIELD — Most of us have received chocolates, flowers, jewelry, conversation hearts, or a combination, from a loved one on Valentine’s Day.
Six months after receiving the kidney that saved his life from his wife Debbie, Gary Bulman, 62, says he expects nothing else from her on Thursday but to spend time together — time he wasn’t sure he would have.
“This is the greatest gift I could ever get,” said Bulman. “I can’t think of anything that could top this.”
Gary and Debbie Bulman were both born and raised in Greenfield and both graduated from Greenfield High School, but they were four years apart, so never knew each other growing up.
It was in 1976, seven years after he graduated and three years after she did, that they met.
“I’d go with my friends and watch him and his friends play street hockey,” said 57-year-old Debbie. “We started dating in 1976 and a year later we were married.”
Throughout the years, they raised two sons, Chris, 33, and David, 31, and they worked to build a life together.
“It hasn’t always been easy,” said Debbie.
Gary, who works as a transit bus driver for Franklin Regional Transit Authority, started having trouble about five years ago.
“I actually didn’t know I had a problem until I went to the doctor for my yearly exam,” said Gary.
He said transit bus drivers are required by Massachusetts law to have yearly examinations.
“They took the usual blood and urine, and then they told me I had kidney disease,” he said. “I was shocked. I had no clue what that meant.
“How did I get it? Where did it come from?” Those were the questions he asked.
Gary said doctors told him he was producing too much protein and it wasn’t being filtered out. It was hereditary.
“There are six or seven kidney diseases,” he said. “I have nephritis. I guess that’s the best one to have and that’s no picnic. It’s not good, but I’m thankful I didn’t have any of the others.”
Gary said he had no symptoms at the time of the exam.
“I started seeing a doctor every three months to keep an eye on things,” he said.
Then, things started going downhill.
“It was a couple of years after the diagnosis that he started feeling sick,” said his wife. “He had to go on dialysis three times a week, four hours at a time.”
“I had to work,” said Gary. “I didn’t have time for that, but I had no choice.”
He said dialysis was grueling and took a toll on him.
“It was like having the flu all of the time,” he said.
For a while, he went on home dialysis, but he said that also started to take a toll.
“At least it beat the three-day-a-week thing,” he said. “I did it for about a year, but then I started getting sicker.”
Gary started to lose a lot of weight and was getting “really bad,” the couple said.
“I was told I had two choices: a transplant or to go back on dialysis for the rest of my life,” he said. “On dialysis I might have lived another 10 years, if I was lucky.”
He decided to look into having a transplant.
“I figured it was a long shot, but figured I’d try,” he said. “I was eventually told it would probably be five years before I’d get one. That was going to be a problem, because I’d have to be on dialysis until then.”
That’s when Debbie decided she’d get tested to see if she was a match.
“We didn’t want our kids to have to be tested or to have to give a kidney, so I thought I’d try, first,” she said. “We knew it was probably for naught, but a week after the test, I got the call telling me I was a match. I didn’t believe it.”
When she told her husband, he had just one thing to say, “You’re pulling my leg,” as he stared in disbelief.
They said they were told the odds of her being a match for a non-relative were about 1 in 50,000.
“When I realized it was really going to happen, all I could think was that I had hit the lottery,” said Gary.
Debbie, who has been married to Gary for 37 years, said all she wanted was for him to get well, and last August she made that happen.
“I didn’t think about whether it was a big deal,” she said. “I thought that because I ended up being a match, I must be meant to give him one of my kidneys. I just didn’t even think about it.”
It ended up being a longer recovery for her, but both said that hospitals like Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, where they had their transplant operations, do them on a regular basis.
“It’s very common now, so it isn’t such a big deal,” said Gary. “It’s much safer than it used to be.”
Both said they were a little scared on the day of the surgery, but said it went smoothly.
“I think being scared is typical, not matter what you are having done,” said Gary.
After the operation, they shared a recovery room, and later, a regular room.
He had to stay in the hospital for three days and she stayed for five. They said they were told that is also typical.
Gary is still on an anti-rejection drug, but is doing very well. He said he is off most of the drugs doctors had him on.
They said when they had finally both returned home, their mothers and other family members, including her sisters, helped until they recovered fully.
“We couldn’t have done it without them,” said Debbie. “They were amazing. Everyone should have people like them to help afterward. You really need it.”
It’s obvious that Gary and Debbie Bulman’s love goes deeper than chocolates or flowers, and they say they aren’t sure what they’ll do for Valentine’s Day this year, because everything else they could give each other now seems so trite.
“I guess we’ll just celebrate the fact that he’s here and that we are best friends,” said Debbie.
“I’ll tell you though, the best gift someone could give someone else is to be a donor,” said Gary. “It would mean so much to someone you love, but it would also mean the world to a stranger. It’s the gift that keeps giving.”
They said maybe sometime in the future they’ll take a second honeymoon, but can’t afford it at this point.
“Even that couldn’t top this, though,” said Gary, who smiled across the table at his best friend.
Becoming an organ donor
There are several ways to register to become an organ donor.
∎ Contact your local hospital and ask about signing a donor card.
∎ Indicate your wishes on your driver’s license.
∎ Visit: www.donatelifenewengland.org/register.
∎ And if you would like to become a living kidney donor, visit the National Kidney Foundation at: www.kidney.org/transplantation/livingdonors.