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Gift of life keeps brothers together

BY LAUREL BLACK lblack@paducahsun.com

Ed Cooper doesn't feel comfortable being called a hero.

The Paducah native said that when he saved older brother Tom Cooper's life, he was just doing what anyone in his place would do.

"To me it was a no-brainer. I've never looked at it as though I did something heroic," he said.

Ed Cooper, 54, always looked up to Tom, 61. So he never thought twice about giving him one of his kidneys.

Thirty-five years after the transplant, the kidney is going strong, and Tom has found a way to thank his brother for the greatest gift he's ever received.

'An inspiration'

Doctors didn't expect Tom Cooper to make it to age 11.

Sulfa drugs prescribed to fight a lingering cold when Tom was 9 months old crystallized in his kidneys, permanently damaging them. But during Tom's early years, his lung proved a bigger problem.

When he was about 21 months old, Tom mistook his mother's broken pearl necklace for grapes and swallowed a handful. One aspirated into his right lung, requiring a lower lobectomy. He battled respiratory problems, including asthma, throughout his youth.  

Despite his medical issues, Tom looks back fondly on his childhood at the family's 49 acres on Old Cairo Road. He recalls summers spent playing baseball, Whiffle ball and basketball with his younger brother and kids from the neighborhood.

Ed Cooper said only those close to the family knew of his brother's deteriorating health.

"Every day was a struggle for him, but he never complained," Ed Cooper said. "He was a very good athlete, and just watching him persevere ... was a great example. It was an inspiration."

Matching scars

Tom made it to the age of 24 before his kidneys started to fail. He underwent dialysis for about 18 months at Lourdes hospital, and Ed, who was a senior at Heath High School at the time, drove Tom to and from his appointments. When it became apparent that he needed a transplant, he was referred to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.

Ed turned out to be a near-perfect match for his brother, but the team was reluctant to carry out the transplant at first because Ed's kidneys had multiple arteries (a typical kidney has only one). This increased the risk of bleeding during the operation.

Months went by, and Tom's quality of life suffered due to the dialysis. An 18-year-old Ed was working at Paducah Drug Company when he received a call from the transplant team at Vanderbilt, who told him they'd proceed with the operation. Would he consider it?

"I said, 'There's nothing to think about. Let's do it and get it done,'" he recalled.

The brothers' parents, William and June Cooper, ran a tax accounting business and were well known in the community. When it came time for the surgery, Tom said, classrooms at Paducah Community College and congregations at Concord Methodist Church prayed for the pair.

The brothers underwent the operation on Feb. 20, 1979 - nine years after Vanderbilt's first living donor transplant. Tom said a doctor later described the era as "the Wild West of organ transplants."  

But neither brother remembers worrying over his own fate.

"I was probably too young to know any better," Ed admitted, adding that his biggest fear was that the transplant wouldn't work.

The brothers also worried for their parents, who faced the reality of having two sons undergo surgery at the same time.

Tom's operation took longer than expected, but the pair emerged in good condition with matching scars. Ed, who says he doesn't like needles but has a high tolerance for pain, refused to take painkillers during recovery. Tom's body at first tried to reject the new kidney, but treatment was successful, and he continues to take the same immunosuppressants doctors prescribed him 35 years ago. Life slowly returned to normal.

Thirty years after the transplant, they returned to Vanderbilt to celebrate its anniversary - and their status as the hospital's longest surviving donor and recipient.

Saying thanks

The Coopers say they haven't experienced any negative effects from the transplant, so they don't think about it very often. Tom went on to work for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and now lives in Fredericksburg, Va., with his wife, Karen, and two daughters. Ed resides in Nashville with his wife, Laurie, and three children. The brothers remain close despite the physical distance.

"When we get together, it's not unusual for us to finish each other's sentences," Ed Cooper said.

Tom Cooper said he tries to thank his brother for the gift every year. Sometimes he'll send an email or make a call. He's also given Ed a dozen red roses and basketball game tickets. But he's always wanted to do something more.

So he wrote a book.

"Miracle at Exit Number 3" was released this year by Tate Publishing and details not only the transplant, but also a number of other trials and triumphs of the Cooper clan, which includes older siblings William and Mildred.

Tom Cooper writes about how his family's property was split in two through imminent domain to allow for the construction of Interstate 24 in 1969. He writes about how the family's home, which also housed their business, inexplicably burned to the ground shortly afterward. And he writes about how faith carried the Coopers through their hardships.

"Faith was a big part of going forward, and I think that's one of the things that has helped (us) come to the 35th anniversary (of the transplant)," he said.

Both brothers have become advocates of living organ donation. Ed helps Tennessee's organ procurement organization through speaking engagements. He hopes his own experience can prove helpful for others considering living organ donation.

Tom points out that in donating his kidney, Ed gave the gift of life not only to him, but to his children and future grandchildren.

Tom tries to maintain a healthy diet and to exercise regularly, but he also believes there's something more to the kidney's longevity.

"Some transplants don't work out nearly as well. We understand it's just a gift. It's by the grace of God that it (the kidney) has gotten this far," he said.

Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641, or follow @LaurelFBlack on Twitter.

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