By Haley Wilson
The Birmingham Times
Ron Mathieu, chief executive officer of the Birmingham-Shuttleworth International Airport, is a survivor. “My kidneys were failing, and I had little more than 10 percent of their function,” he recalled of some “really dark days” in 2017. “Without a transplant, I would have to be put on dialysis, [a procedure that removes waste products and excess fluid from the blood when the kidneys stop working properly; it often involves diverting blood through a machine to be cleaned],” he explained. “Also, when your kidneys are not filtering, everything is kind of a blur, so I was having memory issues during that time because I really thought I was going to die.”
Mathieu was battling a case of polycystic disease, an inherited disorder in which clusters of cysts develop primarily within the kidneys, causing them to enlarge and lose function. He was told that he would need a kidney transplant to survive, and doctors discovered that Yasmine, his wife of 33 years, was a match.
The CEO considers himself “one of the lucky ones,” he said, because more than 80,000 people are on waiting lists for a kidney transplant, according to the Living Kidney Donors Network. Of those, 4,500 die each year waiting for transplants.
“I was supposed to have surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, [Minnesota],” Mathieu recalled. “Unfortunately, a month before my surgery, [the doctors] sent me a letter explaining that due to my kidney anatomy, I was no longer an appropriate candidate for living kidney donation.”
Yasmine’s kidney was normal and healthy, but it had more arteries going into it than the typical kidney, a complicating factor that can cause many organ transplant centers to rule out donor candidates. “We were devastated,” Mathieu said.
But Yasmine didn’t take no for an answer.
“The same night we received the letter, [my wife] was already sending emails to other transplant surgeons. She remembered that the University of Maryland Medical Center’s transplant teams took on risky cases,” Mathieu said.
The devoted wife emailed Stephen Bartlett, M.D., chief of surgery at the University of Maryland Medical Center, and received a response the next morning.
“We got that call, and a month later we were in surgery,” Mathieu said.
To prepare for the procedure, Yasmine had to lose 20 pounds in three weeks.
“She walked our hilly neighborhood two hours a day with weights on her wrists and ankles, all the while continuing to eat and ensure that she would be healthy enough to have a kidney removed,” Mathieu recalled.
When the airport CEO’s kidneys were removed, they were the size of “two rugby balls,” he said. “I’m really not supposed to be alive right now.”
After the transplant, Mathieu donated his kidneys to research. He now takes immunosuppressive drugs to prevent his body from rejecting the transplanted organ and adheres to a strict diet that limits some of the foods he can eat.
“The transplant is not a cure. It’s a treatment, and it comes with different issues. In my case, it is a change of life, and I have to take my medication. My wife jokes with me that I really am stuck with her for the rest of my life,” Mathieu said, laughing.
When Mathieu came to interview for the CEO position at the Birmingham-Shuttleworth International Airport, he learned that a board member’s husband had undergone a kidney transplant two months before his interview.
“[The board member] asked me if I’d had [a kidney transplant] and gave me some strong, encouraging words of advice,” Mathieu said. “There is kind of this brotherhood that is formed for people who have gone through this. To me, that was the divine intervention.”
Mathieu makes it clear his wife is an inspiration. “I wouldn’t have been able to do any of the things I have done without the support, advice, and counsel of my wife,” he said. “[Yasmine] is my biggest supporter and my biggest fan. She’s also my biggest critic when she needs to be.”