“My Mom, My Hero:” A Nurse Donates a Kidney to Her Mother

Nurse Practitioner Jo Marie Palazzo was always inspired by the way her mother, Theresa Bullicer, put family first. So, when Theresa needed a kidney transplant, Jo Marie didn’t hesitate to become her living donor.

After a 40-plus career as a nurse, Theresa Bullicer looked forward to retiring, with plans to travel and spend time with her children and grandchildren. But just weeks before her planned retirement, she got some bad news. At age 62, Theresa, was diagnosed with end-stage renal disease and her kidneys were failing. Instead of seeing the world, she started dialysis, and soon after, doctors placed her on the national transplant waiting list.

Jo Marie Palazzo, her daughter and a nurse practitioner at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, was devastated. She wanted to help her mom, especially since she had sacrificed so much for their family. So without hesitation, Jo Marie underwent testing to see if she could be a potential living kidney donor. She was a match, and nine months later, she donated a kidney to her mother at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornel Medical Center.

“She’s always supported me in everything I wanted to do in life,” Jo Marie says. “I’m so thankful that I had the opportunity to be a blessing to the woman who provided for me.”

From Caregiver to Patient

Theresa emigrated alone from the Philippines in 1983, establishing a life in the United States so her husband and children could soon join her.

“My mom worked multiple jobs to pay for our education and for her siblings to go through nursing school,” Jo Marie says. “She was always such a hard worker and an inspiration.”

Jo Marie as a child, with her mother, Theresa.

As a critical care nurse, Theresa worked on front lines during the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City.

“My kids asked if I was going to retire during the pandemic for my safety, and I said, ‘No, I have to be there for my patients. They need me,’” she says.

After caring for ICU patients through the peak of COVID-19, she planned to retire in November 2022.

But just one month shy of her goal, her health took a turn.

For two decades, she had dealt with diabetes and high blood pressure, and those conditions had contributed to chronic kidney disease in October 2022, when doctors discovered she was in kidney failure. “It was devastating,” Theresa says. “I had to undergo emergency dialysis, which turned into in-center dialysis three times a week.”

“When she got sick, it crushed me to think of her losing her joy,” Jo Marie says. “My mom, my hero, wasn’t going to be able to live like she planned and like we hoped for.”

A Daughter’s Devotion

Shortly after dialysis treatment began, Theresa’s care team at her local hospital began discussing the need for a kidney transplant.

“I was told I could be waiting for a kidney for up to five to ten years or longer, unless I could find a living donor,” Theresa says.

Jo Marie, then 42, couldn’t bear the thought of waiting, and immediately stepped up.

“Once she received a list of medical centers to consider for transplant, I told her I didn’t even need to look. ‘We’re going to NewYork-Presbyterian.’ I wouldn’t trust our care with any other hospital,” Jo Marie says.

The kidney transplant team at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center—ranging from nephrologists and dieticians to social workers and surgeons—met with mother and daughter for transplant evaluation and testing.

“As a nurse, I knew I was in good hands,” Theresa says.

The Gift of a Lifetime

After nine months on dialysis, Theresa scheduled her living donor kidney transplant with Jo Marie.

Just days before the July surgery, Jo Marie’s colleagues in the pediatric emergency department planned a surprise celebration in honor of her donation, complete with a kidney-shaped cake and cookies.

“From the support of my coworkers at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia to the great team at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, I had such a wonderful experience,” says Jo Marie, who has been a nurse at NewYork-Presbyterian for more than 20 years. “And to know I was giving my mom the gift of life is one of the most rewarding feelings anyone can have.”

Dr. Dustin Carpenter

On July 27, 2023, Theresa underwent a successful kidney transplant surgery led by Dr. Dustin Carpenter, transplant surgeon at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, and Jo Marie underwent donor surgery led by transplant surgeon Dr. Kofi Atiemo.

“The kidney worked immediately,” Dr. Carpenter says. “It’s amazing to watch the organ come back to life, and that her daughter was able to do that for her. It’s a powerful thing.”

Theresa was able to leave the hospital after just four days.

“Part of the benefit of being at a high-volume transplant center is that we are leaders in experience and able to provide high-quality care for our patients,” Dr. Carpenter says.

“Knowing the hospital’s reputation gave me a lot of ease and peace,” Theresa says.

Journeys to Come

Following their recovery, the family celebrated Theresa’s official retirement with a trip to the Philippines.

“It was a celebration of our transplant journey, our health, and more importantly, of my mom,” Jo Marie says. “I definitely feel a closer bond to her since the surgery, and it’s so wonderful to see her better.”

Now, Theresa looks forward to traveling the world alongside her family, with a trip to Austria on the horizon.

“Thanks to my daughter, life is good again,” Theresa says. “I’m just so thankful.”

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