A New Lease on Life

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When Mike Cullen began having Sitting together at a restaurant. trouble playing just three or four holes of golf in 2013, he knew something was wrong.

For 34 years, he enjoyed putting in long hours as a beloved teacher, principal and superintendent at local South Dakota schools while he and his wife, Betty, raised their two boys. His love of working with students meant he took on many additional roles over the years too: athletic director, football game announcer, substitute bus driver and even temporary cheerleading coach.

After a series of doctor’s visits and tests, Mike learned that kidney disease was to blame for his poor golfing and the host of symptoms he was experiencing. He began dialysis sessions three times a week and a course of prescribed medications, but knew a transplant was the solution he really needed to feel better.

Mike decided to retire in July 2015 and hoped that his name would soon come up on the long kidney donor list. Then something extraordinary arrived in the mail — a box from a former student filled with kidney beans and a message that she wanted to donate her kidney to thank him for giving her “a new lease on life” years before. This former student, nurse Elizabeth Blankenfeld, learned about Mike’s need for a transplant via a local TV story and decided to reach out.

The following month, Mike gratefully received the kidney transplant and gradually started to feel more like his old self. He and his wife moved to Minnesota to be closer to their grandson, and Mike began morning swims to build his strength. But he wanted a meaningful way to fill his free time now that his career had ended.

“I wanted to do something to make a difference, and my son mentioned that the new LSS Neighbor to Neighbor service needed volunteers to support older adults,” he said.

The service, launched in September 2016, offers older adults a little extra support at home and in the community. Mike dove into the opportunity. He completed training and began supporting Bill Wherland, a Minneapolis resident. “I was surprised how open he was,” Mike said. “You get close and become friends almost immediately.”

Bill signed up for the Neighbor to Neighbor service following a stroke, and Mike visits him three to four hours each week. Mike drives him to speech therapy appointments aimed at improving his pronunciation. They catch up over lunch, collect groceries and walk outdoors to improve Bill’s balance. The visits also give Bill’s wife a much-needed break from caregiving. It is a time she can run her own errands, visit with friends and family, or just catch-up on housework.

During one recent and memorable visit, the new friends ventured to Bill’s old high school and reminisced about days past. “Bill’s generation has a lot to offer,” Mike said. “He’s giving an old teacher a lesson in local history, and we’re making new memories experiencing the community together.”