Heart transplant patient outlived predictions

Michelle "Petie" Lineberry Mullins and husband Tim Mullins walk their pets on the dirt road where they live in Floyd County. Michelle Mullins died Saturday, one of the longest-surviving heart transplant patients in the world.

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Michelle Lineberry Mullins -- known far and wide as "Petie" -- quite literally had more heart than just about anyone.

In the mid-1980s, her smiling face seemed to be everywhere in the New River Valley as a homespun "Have a Heart for Petie" campaign raised almost $50,000 to help pay for the transplant that saved her from cardiac disease.

Then she outlived doctors' predictions for her post-transplant survival -- doubling, tripling and quadrupling the five years she'd been told to expect and becoming one of the longest-surviving heart transplant recipients in the world.

And in 2006, her long effort to track down the family of the teen whose heart she carried led her from Floyd County to Dallas, where her tearful meeting with the girl's mother attracted national media attention.

On Saturday night, Mullins, 44, died at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville.

Her father, William Lineberry, who lives near Mullins' home in the community of Pilot along the Floyd-Montgomery county line, said Sunday that Mullins had been at the hospital for about six weeks. Her husband, Tim Mullins, a senior graphic designer in Radford University's public relations department; stepson Ian Mullins, a student at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.; and Lineberry were with her much of the time.

Petie Mullins had long ago become used to the ups and downs of her health and rarely mentioned them unless someone asked, said Emily Stanton, a long-time friend and neighbor.

The lifelong medication regimen that follows transplants brings many complications, and for Mullins, these included frequent migraine headaches that she ignored as best she could.

Stanton recalled once expressing surprise that Mullins was up and about during a migraine attack.

"She said, 'I have a choice. I can lie in bed or get up and do. I choose to get up and do,' " Stanton said.

Mullins loved spending time with her pets: a Chihuahua named Isabella; a larger, husky-looking dog named Wolfie; and Murphy the cat. She spent as much time outdoors as possible, Stanton said.

Very sensitive to heat, Mullins had recently set up a screened pavilion outdoors where she could sit in the shade and watch birds.

A woodcarver in the past, she began making jewelry in the past year, becoming interested after her stepson took a class.

"She would live every day to the fullest," Stanton said.

In Mesquite, Texas, news of Mullins' death devastated the family of the 14-year-old whose heart had become hers.

Speaking through tears, Debra King and her son, David King, said that in the three years since their highly publicized meeting with Mullins, they had come to consider her family.

"My daughter lived on in her," Debra King said. "She was like my best friend."

David King said Mullins treated him like a younger brother and that although he had only one face-to-face meeting with her, they had called and written each other frequently. He said Mullins had telephoned about a month ago. As was usual for her, she had not discussed her health, he said.

In June 1986, Debra King's daughter, Radina Mundo, died after a brain aneurysm, and King allowed doctors to make her organs available for transplant. Just weeks before, Mullins, then a junior at Radford University, had learned she had terminal heart disease probably caused by a virus.

Mullins was told that without a transplant, she probably had less than a year to live. With a transplant, she probably could expect about five years.

Mullins' family had no insurance to pay for the operation because Lineberry, well known for his "Billy Bluegrass" radio program, had recently been laid off from his day job at the Fairlawn AT&T plant.

But donations were pouring in, and the state picked up the rest of the tab as Mundo's heart was flown to the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond and Mullins underwent surgery.

The operation was a success, and Mullins would go on to join what Dr. James Bergin, heart transplant director at the University of Virginia, on Sunday called an elite group of survivors.

Mullins finished her college degree in child development and family life and worked with the Big Brothers and Big Sisters program as her health allowed. She married, divorced and married again. Advised by doctors not to have children because of the strain it would put on her heart, she reveled in the role of stepmother.

And she searched for the family of the girl whose heart she had.

That search took years because hospitals would not tell her more than that the donor had lived around Dallas. Eventually, The Dallas Morning News put her in contact with the Southwest Transplant Alliance, who located King.

The Mullins family flew to Dallas. At the airport, with cameras flashing, King laid her head on Mullins' chest to hear her daughter's heart beating.

"It's because of you and your daughter that I've had so many things," The Dallas Morning News quoted Mullins telling King. "I met my husband, and I got to see my nephew's wedding and so many things. I'm so glad I've been able to have all that in my life."

Mullins' death came nearly 23 years and four months after her transplant, and followed liver and kidney problems linked to the medications that let her keep her second heart.

That heart, Bergin said, turned out to be sturdier than the rest of Mullins' body.

It stayed strong until the end.

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