Milledgeville teen continues recovery after kidney transplant

pramati@macon.comJanuary 13, 2014 

MILLEDGEVILLE -- Tristan Phillips couldn’t have gotten a better gift for the holidays.

Two days before Thanksgiving, Tristan received a new kidney.

Donated by his father, Marty Phillips, the kidney will hopefully allow Tristan, 15, to have some of the same opportunities as other teenagers.

Tristan was born with spina bifida, a spinal condition that has left him paralyzed below the waist. That and other medical issues have led to 22 surgeries throughout his life.

Tristan is extremely quiet, and his small, frail body limits what he can do physically. A family member must carry him up and down the stairs at home. While recovering, he needs help with everyday actions, such as bathing.

During a 2012 surgery to try to correct his scoliosis, Phillips went into kidney failure. His transplant surgery came Nov. 26, 2013.

After a difficult recovery -- Tristan spent 27 of the 33 days following surgery in the hospital -- he now hopes to begin living the life of a typical teenager.

And, like many typical teenagers, Tristan has focused on a few main things: social media, video games and food.

“I’ve got my appetite back,” he said.

While traveling back and forth to Atlanta three times a week for dialysis treatments, Tristan was extremely limited in what he could eat. For example, he couldn’t consume most dairy products.

Tanya Phillips, Tristan’s mother, said her son’s grandmother bought him a huge Hershey’s chocolate bar to eat once the surgery was over. But Tristan mostly slept for a couple of days following the surgery, so he had to wait a while to enjoy it.

As Tristan continues to recover, the family anticipates not being confined by the rigid schedule his treatment demanded.

“It’s definitely going to be a better quality of life,” Tanya said. “We were going three days a week to Atlanta for dialysis, which was more than 600 miles a week.”

Tanya Phillips and her partner, Cyndi Wright, moved from Ivey to Milledgeville a few months ago. Tristan receives his treatment at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston.

These days, the family only has to go to Atlanta twice a week and no longer for dialysis. Instead, doctors are monitoring Tristan’s progress with his new kidney. Eventually, those trips will be cut to once a month.

The doctors are making constant adjustments to his anti-rejection medicine during the six months following the transplant, and sometimes Tristan feels the effects of the tinkering. He takes medication four times a day.

Meanwhile, the family is adjusting to the transition.

“It’s been stressful, with me having to drive to work and helping Tanya,” said Marty Phillips, a welder in Tennille. “If he was in the hospital, we would take turns staying with him.”

Tristan said he wanted to go on vacation, but the family couldn’t travel because of the dialysis. “The dialysis schedule was so crazy, we couldn’t go anywhere,” he said.

Tanya Phillips said she plans to home-school Tristan for the rest of the school year. Because of the long stretches in the hospital, Tristan is still in the seventh grade, but the family hopes he can start the new academic year in the eighth grade.

Interest in military

“He wants to go to (Georgia Military College Prep School),” Wright said. “He’s very military-oriented. It’s something he’s into doing.”

Indeed, Tristan’s room design has two dominant color schemes -- green camouflage and University of Georgia red and black -- as well as clothes and other items Wright gave him from her time in the Army.

Marty Phillips said his recovery has been much quicker than his son’s.

“I’m feeling good,” he said. “There’s no pain. There were no problems or anything.”

When the family first got the news that Tristan would need a new kidney, Marty Phillips said he didn’t hesitate to offer his.

“I’m happy I did what I did,” he said. “He’s my son. I don’t know of a father who wouldn’t do that for his son.”

Marty Phillips wanted to be in the same operating room as Tristan during the transplant, but the surgical team elected to remove the kidney at Emory University Hospital and take it across the street to Egleston, where it would be implanted into Tristan.

“They tested me first (before the surgery),” Marty said. “I knew we had the same blood type. They did a 10-hour evaluation of me. Everything came back fine.”

Tristan’s parents divorced when he was 3 years old, but they still do things as a family. Tanya Phillips said her ex-husband often stays over at their home in Milledgeville, and everyone takes trips together.

“Me and Tanya get along better than when we were married,” Marty Phillips said with a chuckle.

“(Tristan) has got some pretty amazing parents,” Wright said. “It’s hard work. It’s rough to have to raise a disabled child. Constantly having to go back and forth to Atlanta three times a week, that’s murder on anyone. But we all have a common goal, and that’s (Tristan).”

Tanya Phillips said the family has enjoyed support from family and friends, and a Facebook page called “Tristan’s Prayer Soldiers” has more than 300 followers.

“Everyone agreed to pray for him on transplant day,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of community support.”

Once Tristan returns to school, Tanya Phillips said she’s unsure of what she’ll do with her free time.

“I want to go back to school and get a job,” she said, noting that most of Tristan’s medical expenses have been covered by Medicaid and Medicare. “The last 16 months have thrown me for a loop. I’m almost 40 now, and I’m still trying to figure it out. The only thing I’ve ever wanted to be is a mom. I guess God knew what he was doing.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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