June 7, 2012 Volume 33, No. 32
Three MU Health Care workers forge decades-long friendship
Doctor’s organ donation staves off dire health problems for friend
“Friendship is a single soul dwelling in two bodies.” — Aristotle
That would certainly apply to MU physicians Susan Winkelmann and Anne Fitzsimmons, who finished their residencies together in 1989 at University Hospital and raised their children in the same Columbia neighborhood.
Yet Susan’s husband, Bob, is also part of the friendship mix. Anne and Bob got to know each other in Kansas City in the early 1990s. Over the next two decades, the families did just about everything together.
In February, on Valentine’s Day, the three-fold friendship reached another level that literally was a lifesaver for one of them.
“I cry every other day about it,” Susan said. “It was a gift you can’t repay.”
A growing friendship
Bob and Susan Winkelmann met on the MU campus in the late 1970s, when Bob was earning his BS in engineering and Susan a BA in biology. They married in 1980.
In 1984, Bob earned his bachelor’s in nursing, and Susan completed her MD at the School of Medicine. Anne, meanwhile, earned a BA in biology in 1981 and her MD five years later at the School of Medicine. Anne married Tim O’Connor in 1987.
Today, Anne is an associate professor of family and community medicine at University Physicians Green Meadows Family Medicine. Susan is an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital.
Susan and Anne hardly knew each other until they bonded during residency as professionals carving out careers in medicine.
In the early 1990s, Anne was a practicing physician at a Kansas City medical clinic, and Bob was earning a master’s in nurse anesthesia at the University of Missouri–Kansas City. Bob and Anne struck up a friendship while playing in the same Kansas City softball league.
In 1992, Bob joined the Veterans Hospital as a nurse anesthetist, and Anne started practicing at University Hospital. She and her family moved to the Winkelmanns’ neighborhood. That year, Susan gave birth to Maggie, and Anne gave birth to Ellen — the second child for both. The young mothers shared similar parenting philosophies, such as creating a firm structure for their growing families.
The proximity of the families led to a closer bond. They took vacations and spent holidays together. They played cards and tennis matches together. They attended Mizzou basketball and football games. The young girls, Ellen and Maggie, became nearly inseparable.
In 2001, Anne’s divorce from her husband was made easier by the Winkelmanns’ support.
“We drop in on each other,” Susan said of the friendship. “We don’t have appointments.” The joke was that a path had been worn between the homes of the Winkelmanns and the Fitzsimmons.
But as the decade of the 2000s neared its end, Bob realized it was time to address his dire health issue.
Helping a friend
In 1994, Bob was diagnosed with a genetic kidney disease. His family history showed that the disease became active typically when family members were in their late 50s. During Bob’s checkup at University Hospital in November 2010, his doctor noted the continuing deterioration of his kidney function. The doctor recommended he consider a preemptive kidney transplant and request a kidney from the Cadaveric Donor List.
Bob and Susan left the office in a fog as they realized they finally had to address the situation. The couple ran into Anne in the hallway. “How do you get someone to donate a kidney?” Susan said rhetorically at one point.
“You let your friends take care of it for you,” Anne said.
Doctors estimated that Bob had until spring or summer 2012 to find a donor before his kidney failed. Anne offered to be tested, but Bob told her that wasn’t necessary since he was on the organ donor waiting list and also seeking a donor within his family.
By spring 2011, with no suitable donor found, Anne tested as a match. But Bob demurred. “Bob wanted to use someone he felt comfortable with in putting through the process,” Susan said.
“You are asking a lot of someone, and you can never repay it,” Bob said of his hesitation, his eyes blurring with emotion.
Finally, with time running out, Bob agreed in November 2011 to have Anne be the donor. Anne hastened Bob’s decision by arguing that he needed the surgery soon to be healthy for the wedding of the Winkelmanns’ oldest daughter, Molly, in May 2012.
On Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012, Bob and Anne were prepped for surgery at University Hospital. Both lay on gurneys outside separate operating rooms when Anne, seeing Bob, joked to him how, despite the low odds, she had to take a pregnancy test among other tests before surgery.
Anne’s operation lasted three hours. Bob’s started about a half-hour later and lasted more than four hours. Anne left the hospital Friday, and Bob went home Saturday.
Without the surgery, Bob would have had to go on dialysis. Almost half of patients on kidney dialysis die in two years, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing; 90 percent die in 10 years.
Anne jokes that Bob inherited some of her better traits through the transplant, such as her skills in playing cards and potluck cooking.
But the tears that flowed as they recounted the Valentine’s Day operations suggest the gravity of what occurred.
“It means Bob will be walking Molly down the aisle,” Susan said the week of the wedding. “It’s just a priceless gift.”
To read another feature profile on staff personnel, click on the following link for a piece on Matt Ross, who died in March 2012 after 24 years at Mizzou: