A daughter who considers her mother to be her “hero” came to her mother’s rescue by giving her mother her kidney. 

“I was just one month short of retirement when I got sick,” 64-year-old New Yorker Theresa Bullicer told The Post. 

Bullicer, a mom of three and a grandmother of nine, worked as a nurse for 42 years before her planned retirement in November 2022. However, just weeks shy of her farewell from St. Barnabas Hospital in The Bronx, she was diagnosed with end-stage renal disease, hospitalized and placed on emergency dialysis, something she would need to have three times a week. 

The mother and daughter said that the experience brought them closer together and that they plan to travel together. Courtesy NewYork-Presbyterian

“I asked the doctor, ‘Do I have to be on dialysis for the rest of my life?’ He said, ‘Yes, unless you get a kidney,’” Bullicer recalled. 

Matching with a kidney donor may have taken five to 10 years. Instead, her daughter donated a kidney nine months ago “without hesitation,” Bullicer said.

“Faith is very important to both of us, so I was just crying out to God, ‘How can I help my mom?’” Bullicer’s daughter Jo Marie Palazzo, a 43-year-old nurse at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia, told The Post. Palazzo has four children, one of whom is also a nurse. 

I felt my husband was encouraging me and was supportive of me doing it. And so I was like, ‘Let’s go find out if I’m a match,’ because, if I can help my mom and help her … it’s like a gift of life, right?” she added. 

The process

In order to give a kidney, potential donors must be tested to see if they are the right match for the recipient as well as whether they are healthy enough to give.

“Generally the main criteria is blood type matching,” Dr. Dustin Carpenter, an organ transplant surgeon at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell who performed Bullicer’s surgery, told The Post.

He said that the hospital is sometimes able to transplant organs from a person with a different blood type but it requires a “more complicated immunosuppression regimen,” so it’s ideal if the blood type is the same. Once found to be a blood type match, donors undergo extensive health testing. 

“We make sure that if they donate, it’s under the safest circumstances possible and that they have no untoward risk,” Carpenter explained.

Both Jo Marie Palazzo and Theresa Bullicer (left) are feeling healthy after the surgery. Courtesy NewYork-Presbyterian

“We make sure that their renal function is basically perfect, so that they donate safely. You know, people can live a long and healthy life with only one kidney and not even really have any changes to their lifestyle or to their length of life,” he added. 

Carpenter said that the surgical procedure lasts three to four hours.

“We have to make three new connections usually,” he said of the surgery to add a kidney. 

“One is to the artery, which is what brings blood to the kidney. One is to the vein, which brings blood from the kidney back to the rest of the body. And then, a final connection is between what’s called the ureter and the bladder. That’s what allows the person to urinate again and to clear the urine that gets built up from filtering the blood,” he explained.

He said that people are generally hospitalized for around four days following the transplant and that they are fully recovered after around three months. 

Bullicer said after her surgery, her tests came back normal and she was already feeling much healthier.

“I walked around the first day of surgery and I was discharged after the third day … I have doctor visits, but I feel so much better,” she said.

Mom is her hero 

Palazzo said that seeing her mom healed after donating her kidney to her was “one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”

Prior to her mom getting sick, “we were already in the process of planning her retirement party because we were so happy that she worked for so hard for so long that she was finally going to be able to, you know, travel the world and enjoy her life,” Palazzo explained. 

“She immigrated here from the Philippines by herself before my dad. My brother and I were left in the Philippines so she could build a life here and prepare for us to come,” Palazzo explained. 

The transplant has given Bullicer a chance to lead a normal life. Courtesy NewYork-Presbyterian

“While she was doing that, she sent all her siblings to nursing school in the Philippines so that they could have a better life in America as well,” she continued. 

Her mom worked multiple jobs so that Palazzo and her two siblings could all go to private school, college and nursing school. Today, there are 15 nurses in their family. 

Palazzo said it crushed her when she found out “my mom, my hero, isn’t going to be able to enjoy her retirement like she had planned.” 

Traveling the world 

After retiring, Bullicer planned to travel the world and go island hopping in the Philippines with her college classmates. 

Her kidney disease put a damper on her plans — but luckily it was only temporary. She and her daughter already had the opportunity to explore the world together in February.

“We’ve been traveling together. We just came back from the Philippines [where we were] for a month,” Bullicer said. She plans to go back in June — and her travel plans don’t end there. 

Palazzo said that when she was growing up she and her mother used to watch and listen to “The Sound of Music” together. 

“So we are planning to do a ‘Sound of Music’ tour in Austria,” she said.

The mother and daughter went to the Philippines in February, and Bullicer plans to return in March. Courtesy NewYork-Presbyterian

Live donation benefits 

“We are the busiest living-donor program in New York,” Carpenter said of NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell.

A major reason he advocates for living donation, meaning the organ comes from a living family member, friend or stranger as opposed to a deceased person, is that “the average lifespan for a living donor transplant is twice that of a deceased donor.”

Another plus is “it shortens that period of time that people have to wait and oftentimes, you can get someone transplanted before they’re on dialysis,” he said. 

Donating an organ to someone in need can also be a bonding experience — something Bullicer and Palazzo experienced firsthand. 

I think this experience has definitely brought us closer … We’re just so thankful,” Palazzo said. 

How to become a donor 

There are over 89,000 people on the waiting list for kidney transplants and “dozens of people die every day waiting for a transplant, because there’s always a continued organ shortage.”

He said he would encourage people to be organ donors due to the shortage and because it’s a “very safe operation.”

“People can live a normal life, you know, after donating, with basically no restrictions,” Carpenter said. “We’ve had people that have run marathons within six months of donating. We’ve had people climb Mount Kilimanjaro.”

Palazzo also urged others to consider saving a life.

“If you feel that tug in your heart … go for it,” she said. “You are giving somebody a chance to live a full life again.”

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