Michelle "Petie" Lineberry Mullins '88 considers herself more than doubly blessed. Everybody has one birthday. She has two. She enjoys a life that blends her mother's Hispanic heritage and her father's Southwest Virginia roots. She shares her heart and soul with her husband, Tim Mullins '87, and with a young lady she never met.
beehive logo Bonnie Roberts Erickson

Mullins is one of the longest living heart transplant patients in the world. She’s 41 but smiles when she adds, “I tell people I’m just 20.” She received her heart in 1986, in the summer of her junior year at RU.

Her incredible story begins long before she came to RU. The vivacious, olive-skinned lady is the daughter of radio celebrity “Billy Bluegrass” Lineberry and the late Isabel Lineberry. She and her sister Veronika grew up in the exciting and mesmerizing world of entertainment. As a child, Mullins was accustomed to being considered a celebrity’s daughter and mingling with performers and others who traveled the bluegrass circuit.

Mullins was known as “Petie,” the friend of many, who smiled and enjoyed life to the fullest. Early in her life, when her parents divorced, Michelle, her sister and her mother moved to Texas. During a summer visit with her father, her mother was killed in a car accident in Texas. Michelle then moved to Virginia to live with her father permanently.

Mullins came to RU in the fall of 1983. For the first year, she didn’t really know what profession she wanted to enter. She says, “My father still remembers Dr. Dedmon saying, ‘Your children are in the best position, the smartest position ever.’ I just knew I wanted to go to college. Actually, I wanted to do radio, TV and film but my sister was already getting a degree in that. It was for some strange reason that I thought, well, she’s already doing that so I guess I get to choose something else. It didn’t occur to me that I could do that, too.”

click to enlargeIt came to pass that she majored in child development and family life studies. During the 1980s students and faculty in that major were considered pioneers. She says, “We worked as administrators and teachers and helped teach families how to be a good parent from pregnancy on through age five. We worked in the RU nursery when it first started. This was even before kindergarten had been introduced to the schools.” A strong proponent of education since youth, she looked forward to stirring the imaginations and minds of children. Mullins says, “I actually was a live-in nanny, something like a governess, with three pre-schoolers the year prior to my transplant.”

Mullins worked hard toward her degree and made countless friends along the way. But during her junior year, health problems surfaced and the road to her future was altered. She would face many detours and bumps in the coming year.

“In January of 1986, I was jogging and lifting weights at the Dedmon Center two or three times a week. I was working part time and going to school full time. I was putting myself through school. I remember physically slowing down and thinking it was getting harder to do all this. I was so used to taking care of three children. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Then I started having colds and flu and just couldn’t shake it off. It got harder just to walk to class,” she recalls.

Mullins said she never went to the doctor because she kept thinking, “Oh, I just have too much to do to go to a doctor.” She remembers going through exams and, by that time, putting on weight and not understanding why, since she wasn’t able to eat. She was working part time at a doctor’s office and doing anything else that needed to be done. She didn’t realize how sick she was.

“I willed myself through final exams and got to the last day,” she says. “I was living at another home at the time and the lady was a nursing professor, Patricia dePendleton.” Mullins considered her a second mother and thanks God for her. DePendleton had been a nurse in World War II and noticed things weren’t right with Mullins. After exams, Mullins told her, she would go to the emergency room. After spring session ended, Mullins collapsed. She says, “It wasn’t like I collapsed on the floor. It was mentally, physically, just short of actually collapsing. That was when she took me to the hospital.”

Mullins didn’t want to go for several reasons, one of them being she had no health insurance. DePendleton told her not to worry, that things would work out. That’s when the hospital took the first x-rays and discovered a spot on her lungs. She had pneumonia, and doctors told her to keep her appointment with her family doctor on the following Monday. “I said, ‘Why? I’m here with you now. I don’t need to go see him.’ But I went ahead and I can still remember him listening to my heart saying ‘hmm’ and calling in another doctor to get a second opinion right then and there, and that’s never good.”

Concerned more about the financial hardship that it would put on her father, Mullins said she broke down and cried after her father said he wanted her admitted to the hospital. In one night, she was moved to three rooms and eventually to intensive care. She says, “That’s when I started hearing ‘you’re experiencing heart failure’ and I was thinking, excuse me? I started getting visits from my priests and my father’s reverend and several doctors and I was thinking, well, God, this is not good. It was around midnight and I thought last rites were coming.” There was a lot of commotion, but she had peace within and didn’t feel it was her time to go.

A short time later the doctors told her she needed to be moved to the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond to see if she was a candidate for a heart transplant. Her world had changed in a matter of days.

Heart transplants were still considered experimental in the 80s, and MCV had performed 103 at that time. Once again, Mullins was a pioneer and, she jokingly adds, somewhat of a guinea pig. Things were moving fast and all she could think about was wanting to get back to college to finish her degree. Her prayers would not go unanswered.

While Mullins was still coming to terms with her need for a transplant, a family in Texas was mourning the loss of a daughter, Radina Mundo, a 14-year-old who had died of a brain aneurysm. Mundo’s mother, Debra King, wanted to give life to another through her daughter’s death. She made a decision to donate Mundo’s liver, kidneys, pancreas and heart, even though the family had never talked about organ donation.

The morning after Mundo’s death, the heart was flown to MCV and transplanted to Mullins. A mere two weeks had passed since the time Mullins first learned she would need a transplant. Over the summer, Mullins made incredible leaps in her healing, and by the time school started, she was back in the classroom and doing well. She says, “All that year, I would go into stores and see my face on jars for collecting money. A lot of my classmates didn’t even know I had a transplant. It’s not like when you are introduced to someone that you say, ‘Hi. My name is Michelle. I just had a heart transplant.’ “

RU administrators, faculty and staff rallied around Mullins. Fund-raisers helped pay for medications and driving expenses to and from Richmond, and a trust fund was established to help with healthcare costs. Then President Donald Dedmon and then Executive Assistant to the President Charles Wood traveled to Richmond when Mullins was still in the hospital to present her with a scholarship check that paid for the remainder of her education.

The following spring Mullins graduated with the same classmates she had known the past four years. She never missed a semester. Although she is unable to work with children – because of the high risk of contagious illness – Mullins is grateful for having the opportunity to work with them before her transplant.

Ever optimistic, she says, “I still have children in my life. I have many children who are my friends, and I’m a stepmother, an aunt and a godmother.” Mullins feels blessed to have her step-son, Ian, who has brought her much joy. She says, “Having him in my life has been very important to me, especially since I could not have a child myself.”

Having a family of her own has helped bring life full circle, and she considers every moment precious. “I like sharing a homemade meal with my family at the table, holding hands in church and spending time with my friends. My friends have been the best,” she says. “I am very aware how fortunate I am to have the friends I have in my life. They keep me going.”

Mullins continues, “I get to live my life again with all this new wisdom,” she says. “I have the privilege of understanding how to appreciate everything in life.”

King, the mother of Mullins’ heart donor, wanted her daughter’s heart to go to a young person, but in a miscommunication she was told it went to a 59-year-old man. That is what she believed for almost 20 years. Mullins says hospitals discouraged people from trying to trace donors’ families. All Mullins knew was that the donor had lived in the Dallas area. As years passed, she felt an urgent prompting to find the donor’s family and thank them for their gift. With each passing year, she tried harder to put that piece of her life’s puzzle in place.

Mullins contacted the Dallas Morning News, which then contacted the Southwest Transplant Alliance, an organization that helps patients meet their donors’ families. Mullins’ dream of meeting the family became a reality when she received word that the Alliance had made a connection. It was in the lobby of one of the nation’s busiest airports that the special reunion took place.

“I knew it was going to be intense and emotional but never imagined it would be like it was,” Mullins says in a broken voice. “Tim had brought along a stethoscope so the mother could listen to her daughter’s heart beat if she chose to do that.” Mullins said the stethoscope wasn’t needed – King did not hesitate as she leaned her head against Mullins’ chest in the middle of the lobby at Dallas Love Field and stood silent, listening to the heartbeat of her daughter. Mullins said, “She listened for that first beat and then she just kept her ear to my chest while I held her head in my arms. She told me, ‘My daughter lives on.’ “

Media from across the nation, including the major TV networks, covered the reunion. The pair never noticed cameras

flashing and microphones from every direction. It seemed Mullins, King — and Radina — were the only people in the world for that moment.

Mullins said doctors, for the most part, don’t believe that transplant recipients inherit traits from their donors. She is not so sure about that.

“When I grew up, my sister and I called any kind of drink a soda. I rarely drank Dr. Pepper. When I was real thirsty, I’d drink water. After I woke up from the transplant, I was so dry and asked for a Dr. Pepper.” Just out of curiosity, Mullins asked King what her daughter’s favorite drink was and she said Dr. Pepper.

King called on her birthday, saying “I love you and miss you.” Mullins said the tone of her voice was that of a mother. “I believe she was speaking to her daughter,” Mullins says.

She still goes through difficult times with her health but Mullins has found ways to make those times easier, including a unique form of folk art — carved hearts. She cooks, sews, bakes and has a fervent desire to learn about all things. Sharing her life experiences and thoughts with others is important. Mullins set up an e-mail account at thelifeofaheart@yahoo.com to discuss issues of the heart, both physical and mental. The account is a safe haven for those who may just want to ask specific questions and talk.

Mullins says there are times when she feels particularly close to Radina. With a misty gleam in her eye, she says, “Sometimes I’ll be walking along and something will catch my eye, something I wouldn’t normally give a second glance. And I’ll wonder why my eyes have been drawn to it.” That’s when she puts her hand over her heart and whispers, “Is that you?”

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Debra King and Michelle Mullins meet for the first time at Dallas Love Field.
Courtesy of The Dallas Morning News
Two views of a heart carving by Michelle Mullins tell the story of her connection with her heart donor