Multi organ transplant

Mike Felling becomes first veteran to receive a multi organ transplant from UW Health

Mike Felling smiling against a black background.

Mike Felling wasn’t the typical U.S. Army recruit: As a young boy, he was very active, which continued to adulthood.

At 27, he was living in Florida and running a health club, but he knew he needed to take a different path and decided to enlist. He was proud to serve his country, but after being wounded in Iraq in 1991, he was left with permanent lung damage that got progressively worse over the years. He did not know until years later just how bad the damage was.

Still, Mike lived his life—riding motorcycles, working out and going camping with a group of fellow veterans. But he was having difficulty breathing. In 2009, his doctor at a Veteran Affairs hospital performed a biopsy of his lungs and diagnosed him with pulmonary fibrosis. “They said, ‘Mike, you’re not going to make it until next Christmas,’” said Mike, who lives in Newark, Delaware. “I knew it was true.”

He and his girlfriend, Donna, researched his condition and came up with what they thought was the best solution: a lung transplant. His doctor agreed and referred Mike to the only VA center that offered lung transplants—William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans’ Hospital in Madison, WI, which collaborates with UW Health for organ transplants.

After Mike was evaluated and waitlisted for transplant, he was invited to relocate to temporary housing in Madison and wait for a donor. As overwhelming and scary as this all seemed to him, his mom; his sister, Lori; and Donna shared the caregiving responsibilities so that someone was always with him as he waited. And on Mother’s Day weekend 2011, as fate would have it, his mom was with him when he received the gift of life with a new set of lungs. It was the Mother’s Day gift she had hoped she would get.

Mike was told that while the statistics were not defined, he would hopefully get three to five years of additional life expectancy, as long as he took his meds and took care of himself. As the years went on, Mike surpassed everyone’s expectations, living life to its fullest. He bought a new house, truck and Harley. He traveled, re-united with a daughter he didn’t know, and met his grandson for the first time.

However, in December 2019, he began experiencing complications. By March 2020, Mike was in chronic rejection, and the future once again looked bleak.

However, in May 2020, Mike received a call from the Madison VA, asking if he would be interested in a multi-organ transplant. If all the details could be worked out, he would be the first veteran to receive a lung/kidney transplant at UW Health. Mike agreed to the procedure.

The waiting time went by slowly. And though it seemed as if it couldn’t get worse, it did. His kidneys were failing, and in August 2020 he had to start dialysis. Finally, in February 2022, after many hospitalizations, he was again listed for a transplant—but this time, it was a dual transplant consisting of a single lung and a kidney. Toward the end of Mike’s wait, he could barely walk and lost close to 80 pounds.

On March 17, 2022, Mike became the first veteran to receive a lung/kidney transplant at UW Health. The process required two complete sets of surgical teams—one team of experts in lung transplant and the second were experts in kidney transplant. “We wanted to be able to offer multi-organ transplant to patients who need it, and now we can,” said Erin Lowery, MD, pulmonologist and medical director of UW Health’s lung transplant program. “We were able to do this because we have two fantastic transplant teams able to collaborate and coordinate with each other really well.”

After the procedure, Mike marveled at the care that was provided. “The care at the VA and UW Health is incredible,” he said. “They have everything down to a science. They know exactly what the problem is and how to treat it.”

It has now been a year since Mike’s transplant. While there have been some ups and downs, he just had his one-year follow-up, and his health has improved dramatically. He is working out regularly in his home gym, takes his dog Bristol on walks again without portable oxygen, and in December, he decorated his house for Christmas. He has plans to get his Harley out and back on the road this spring and is looking forward to riding with his friends and fellow vets—something he hasn’t been able to do for the last two years.

Today, Mike is making plans for the future. He is preparing to contact the donor’s family to offer his condolences for their loss and also say “thank you” for the gift of life he was given. He also extends his thank yous to the staff at UW and VA for all of the care he received and continues to receive.