The following excerpt is from our story on Notre Dame safeties coach Bob Elliott’s successful kidney transplant on National Signing Day and the tumultuous year leading up to the procedure that will appear in the upcoming 2013 season preview print edition.
It seemed as if no future medical problem could possibly rattle the stoic instructor after he hurdled the grave twice before, having overcome bone cancer back in 1998 and a re-occurrence a couple years later. Two weeks after being hired at Notre Dame on Jan. 21, 2012, Elliott once again confronted a serious physical attack.
Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly had sent Elliott home until after National Signing Day because there was really nothing Elliott could contribute so late in the recruiting process. That’s when Elliott underwent the normal series of tests every coach has administered in the offseason, though his were more extensive due to his previous medical history.
“I have a whole army of doctors that I need to see every once in a while, so we tried to see them all before the move,” said Elliott, who had just finished his second two-year stint at Iowa State after stops at Kansas State (2002-05) and San Diego State (2006-08). “So I went to the kidney doctor and my numbers were sky-high, which indicated immanent kidney failure. So they actually checked me into the hospital in Iowa. Nobody [in South Bend] knew about this at that time.”
As a result of the bone marrow transplant 14 years earlier, he was aware that his kidneys were “compromised” but there were no signs of failure.
“Everything was going along pretty good,” he said.
Doctors in Iowa wouldn’t discharge Elliott until he found a specialist near Notre Dame and he was instructed to seek immediate treatment. Irish trainer Rob Hunt tracked down Dr. James Porile, Elliott’s wife, Joey, drove the couple to South Bend after being advised not to fly, and Elliott was quickly admitted.
Despite having gone through terrifying medical situations before, Elliott was very concerned, but not so much about his health.
“My fear was that when I told Coach Kelly he would think that I couldn’t do the job,” Elliott said. “He didn’t blink. His experience with his wife (Paqui Kelly is a two-time breast cancer survivor) and all the medical experience that he has, he’s probably the best guy that could have been in that position for me. He said, ‘Hey, we’ll run with it and do what we need to do. You’ll be fine.’ He was awesome. I can’t imagine another guy like that.”
The only realistic route was self-dialysis, or peritoneal dialysis, considering how much Elliott would be on the road recruiting and traveling with the football team during the fall.
Once he was qualified for a transplant, Elliott was placed on the list and was trained how to deliver fluids through an IV into his stomach cavity, which would absorb the liquid and act as his kidney, in the weeks prior to spring break. Three treatments a day were required, which meant hooking up to the IV in his office, in his car and in the defensive staff meeting room.
“There’s no pain involved in that,” he explained. “It’s a pain in the ass; it’s very much an inconvenience, and you have to be pretty determined to not let it keep you from doing things you need to do.”
When Bob Elliott required a bone marrow donor in 1998, he reached out to every conceivable relative and found a match in cousin Gregg Underwood. Another round of calls was necessary to identify a kidney donor, which some patients wait years for as willing living donors are four outnumbered by those in need of a transplant.
Ten volunteers stepped up immediately, including his brother, Bill, and sister, Betsy. Because testing for possible matches is so expensive, the first to meet the criteria is usually selected. That honor belonged to Betsey, who informed Elliott of the news a couple days before Thanksgiving.
“I was really lucky in the fact that I had a bunch of volunteers from my own family — not just brothers and sisters, but cousins … it was really gratifying to see,” he said.
On Feb. 6 — National Signing Day — one of Betsey’s kidneys was successfully tucked under some fat just above her brother’s waist, while the two dead kidneys inside Elliott’s body were left to slowly fade away. Once the anesthesia wore off later that night, he phoned defensive back Cole Luke to congratulate him on signing with Notre Dame.
Of course he also thanked his sister for a gift he says he can never reciprocate.
“I owe her one,” he said. “I’d love to be able to [do the same for someone], but nobody wants my organs or blood.”
The experience convinced Elliott that his superiors were the real deal. His dream job as the head coach at Iowa eluded him because of health issues, and he didn’t want to see what he viewed as the summit for an assistant disappear so quickly.
“It makes me realize that we really do have a coaching staff here that believes in Notre Dame values,” he said. “Coach Kelly is that way in everyday life, not just when he gets up and gives a speech. He proved to me that he lives Notre Dame values.”