Using a life to save a life

Tom KingFarragut

Mary Bell was a 66-year-old widow when she decided to donate a kidney. She was enjoying retirement, spending time at her home in Dickson, Tennessee, and at her mountain retreat in Wears Valley. She was also active in the Dickson Cumberland Presbyterian Church.

Then one day in 2017 while in Wears Valley she happened to see a WBIR-TV story about an Alcoa teacher named Betsy James who needed a kidney. Something clicked. At that moment she decided to be an organ donor, to offer someone that gift of life, someone she would not necessarily know. It’s called a “non-directive donation” – which means anyone who is a match can get her kidney.

A full house at yesterday’s Rotary Club of Farragut meeting at Fox Den Country Club was treated to her passion and faith in organ donations and its impact on lives as the day’s program.

This story has some interesting twists and turns.

She tried to be a donor for Betsy. Unfortunately, Mary was not a match, but she was a perfect match for a man she’d never met. Mary became part of the organ donation program at the University of Tennessee Medical Center’s Center for Transplant Services.

With Mary at the meeting were Linda Walker, who was her nurse throughout this process and is now retired; Ashley Dennis, of the Living Donor Committee for the UT center; and Daniel Pejendino, a Colombia native and graduate of Bethel University who attends Mary’s home church and is a dear friend.

“It was a personal decision,” Mary says. “It’s very much like Rotary’s motto of Service Above Self. It’s like that and loving your neighbors. I’m a widow and it was easy to make the decision because I didn’t have to get anyone’s permission.”

In 2008 she lost her husband, Dr. Walter A. “Butch” Bell, a well-known and beloved doctor in Dickson. He was only 59 when he died at their home of a heart problem. They had six children, and there are four grandchildren and another on the way.

The man whose life she saved is Dr. Joe Bailey of Johnson City. He was 59. Mary had been a cardiac nurse and Bailey was a cardiologist. Since her organ donation surgery on Oct. 25, 2017, she has spoken to 22 Rotary clubs.

Bailey is a member of the Johnson City Rotary Club and a Paul Harris Fellow. They recently were together again when she spoke to his club.

“There was no question in my mind about doing this. I was never afraid,” Mary said. “I had pain but they had drugs for the pain and as I told my daughter, ‘I take drugs now.’” Mary said only two days involved “actual pain,” and she slept and dozed through most of that period with medication.

“It basically took three weeks out of my life,” she explained. “The first was dealing with the pain and the surgery. The second week I had some discomfort and was drowsy, and the third week I was just tired. After that things were back to normal. I am living a perfectly normal life now.”

She is a major cheerleader for organ donation by “living donors.”

“You can donate a kidney to another person while remaining alive and that was something that I’d previously not given a lot of thought to at all,” she said. “If you have never considered doing this, I ask each and everyone here to consider it. Make yourself an organ donor on your driver’s license.”

The UT center has an age cut-off of 70 for being a donor, and there are also a few medical conditions that can stop a donation, hypertension being one example.

“Consider it a gift you have to save a life, and I know I saved a life,” Mary says. “I didn’t just impact Dr. Bailey. I impacted his whole family (and) his ability to enjoy his family and weddings and grandchildren. This is a message that needs to get out.”

If you are interested in having Mary speak to your group, email her at

If you’re interested in exploring membership in Farragut Rotary, drop me an email. We meet at 12:15 p.m. each Wednesday at Fox Den Country Club. You also can call me at 865-659-3562.

Tom King has served at newspapers in Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and California. He started writing for KnoxTNToday in 2017.

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