When Trent Tipple was at his low point, living in Indianapolis, Indiana, experiencing nose bleeds during class, suffering memory loss while trying to study for tests, juggling pre-med classes with daily dialysis treatments, little did he know this was just the first of three major low points in his life.
There was the lymphoma diagnosis. Then the kidney failure. Again. And a kidney transplant. Again.
But to hear Tipple tell it, these are all moments that have shaped an amazing life. So far. Because, let’s be honest, Tipple has defied death approximately three times. And, in his words, he feels “full of gratitude.”
“I have learned to treasure each day and never ignore what is right in front of me,” Tipple says. “I try to remember that the relationships and memories are what actually matter and, as cliché as it is, tomorrow really isn’t guaranteed.”
But there is one thing nagging at Tipple. He hasn’t technically graduated from Butler University, where he was an undergraduate biology major. All of those dialysis appointments didn’t stop him, though, let’s make that clear.
It was that darn beeper.
Tipple, who enrolled at Butler in the fall of 1991, was on track to graduate in 1995. He was 19 credits shy and had applied to Indiana University’s School of Medicine. But, then, that beeper started going off and he had to answer it.
Because Tipple was on the kidney transplant list, he always had a beeper on in case a transplant arrived. After three years, his beeper went off. It just so happened to be during his last semester, senior year. So, technically, he never graduated.
That’s all about to change.
Always Interested in Medicine
Tipple grew up in Wabash County, Indiana. Farm country as he refers to it.
Long before the constant trips to the doctor, he had an interest in helping people by being a physician. Pretty ironic, he says. He was always interested in the ability to help others, and working in medicine gave him the opportunity to blend his interest in science with that desire.
When Tipple was a sophomore in high school he stepped foot on Butler’s campus for the first time as part of a youth event. He was drawn to the campus’ small size and intimate setting.
“Everyone I came across was just nice,” Tipple says. “That first encounter made me familiar with the school and gave me a certain comfort level. I was attracted to the smaller size and the opportunity to get a well-rounded education beyond just science-based courses.”
Turns out the smaller setting would be crucial for many reasons. Tipple was diagnosed with chronic renal disease before his freshman year at Butler. He applied early to Butler, was accepted, and enrolled. With his disease came several trips to the doctor every week. Tipple knew going to Butler would enable him to continue down his desired pre-med path, while also being physically close to the downtown campus of IU Medical Center, as a kidney transplant was what he would eventually need. Tipple felt a school the size of Butler would be more willing to accommodate his specific needs.
“I knew I would be in and out of certain classes due to doctor’s appointments and, at any point, might need to miss class or assignments,” Tipple says. “At a smaller school, it is much easier to form personal relationships and communicate about my specific needs and situation. I think that would be much harder to do at a larger university.”
Determined to Follow His Dreams
Jim Shellaas remembers laying eyes on Tipple for the first time. Tipple was a freshman. Shellhaas was Tipple’s academic advisor, and, right away, something was different.
“He showed up to our first meeting with his mother,” says Shellhaas, who retired two years ago after working at Butler as a biology professor. “Now don’t get me wrong, his mother was a lovely person, but most freshmen don’t come to their appointments with their parents. She was there to explain Trent’s medical condition.”
From that first meeting, Shellhaas says, it was clear that Tipple was a determined young man. And Shellhaas’ first impression never changed over the course of four years.
“He had a dream and he was focused and no matter what, he wasn’t going to let go of it,” Shellhaas says. “It is hard enough to be on a pre-med track when a student is fully healthy. But to do that with a health condition like Trent’s, you have to be special and he is special. He had a goal in mind, plugged along, and never lost sight of it.”
Barb Howes recalls a student who was extremely responsible and always showed up to work at the Science Libraries with a work ethic that stood out. Howes has interacted with thousands of students during her time at Butler, but Tipple stands out.
“No matter what was asked of him, he did it, and he always had a wonderful attitude,” she says. “You never would have known that he was dealing with all of the dialysis, and the pain. It amazes me that he was able to remain so positive, despite having to face so much and juggle so much as a young person.”
Nothing Could Stop Him
After being on dialysis for two-and-a-half years, and after seven surgeries due to dialysis-related complications, Tipple’s beeper finally went off. He would later learn that a woman named Shiela, who’s family decided that she would be an organ donor, enabled him to become a kidney transplant recipient that January day in 1995. But, it wasn’t that simple.
Though he walked in his commencement ceremony, technically, Tipple did not graduate from Butler because of the timing of the transplant surgery and the recovery associated with it. He was 19 credits short.
He did, however, make the most of his time spent around the physicians he still hoped to one day be. “You meet tons of patients and they all impact you in different ways, but Trent stuck out and always will stick out,” says Sharon Moe, professor of nephrology at Indiana University School of Medicine, who first met Tipple when he was a patient at IU Medical Center. “He was just a smart, inquisitive, sharp young man.”
Moe learned that Tipple wanted to attend IU School of Medicine when he was a patient. Tipple also worked in Moe’s lab when he was a student at Butler. She decided to arrange a meeting between Tipple and the head of the Medical School’s admissions committee.
“I learned later that those conversations I had, thanks to Dr. Moe, were key for me ever getting in to med school and achieving my dream of becoming a physician,” says Tipple. “I am so thankful for people like Dr. Moe who believed in me and went out of their way to vouch for me and look out for me. They changed the course of my life.”
“Trent was networking, so to speak, or creating strong relationships, before that was even a thing,” Shellhaas says. “Instead of feeling sorry for himself when he was in the hospital, he was thinking about his next move and how he could achieve his dreams. He is an amazing person.”
He was accepted into IU’s School of Medicine in the summer of 1995, even though he didn’t have an undergraduate degree.
The Struggles Continue
When it was time to head to medical school, Tipple had to, well, learn how to learn again, he says. A fraternity brother from his Butler days, Doug Towriss, was already a medical student at IU. He tutored Tipple for well over a year.
“He taught me what it was to know something, versus being familiar with it,” Tipple says. “If you can’t write it down, you don’t know it. That was his big thing. A lot of time was spent at the chalk board with me writing down pathways, lists, and that type of thing from memory. He didn’t have to do that but he wanted to help me get caught back up.”
Tipple ended up graduating from medical school in 2000. He completed a general pediatrics residency in 2003 and a fellowship in neonatal-perinatal medicine in 2006 at The Ohio State University. By 2006 he was an attending neonatologist and assistant professor of pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine.
But, things weren’t all smooth sailing.
In 2008, he was in Vienna for a conference with his wife and two children. In retrospect, he had been experiencing headaches for a few months, but that is just in retrospect. They wandered through the Swarovski store looking at all the jewelry. Then, all Tipple remembers is his world went black and the loud store went silent. He was 35 and experienced his first seizure.
He was rushed to the hospital, eventually made his way back to Ohio, and on Christmas Eve 2008, he was officially diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma. Technically speaking, he had post-transplant lymphoma. It is a kind of lymphoma only seen in transplant patients. The cruel irony? While Tipple took powerful medications to prevent his body from rejecting his kidney transplant 13 years earlier, those same medications kept his body from recognizing the cancerous cells and eliminating them. Those same cells actually allowed the tumor to form in the first place.
This type of lymphoma carries an average 2-year survival rate of less than 10 percent around the world. But, Tipple’s oncologist at OSU had developed an experimental therapy that showed promise in the six patients who used it prior to Tipple.
Three weeks after starting the therapy, the tumor that had been the size of a walnut was gone. And within six months, there was no evidence of the active disease at all. Tipple was in remission. “It was honestly a miracle,” Tipple says. “I really thought I was going to die. I thought that was it and I just could not believe I was in remission. It is impossible.”
But, Tipple’s story does not end there.
One year after his seizure in Austria, the kidney that he had received about 15 years earlier failed. Tipple was back on dialysis.
“I was feeling devastated. I was angry and frustrated. But yet again, I had the amazing support of those around me,” Tipple says. “My wife put everything in perspective when she reminded me that a year earlier we thought I was going to die and said we will do whatever it takes.”
After 15 months of daily dialysis in their home, Tipple was back in the hospital for his second kidney transplant in 2011. This time, he knew the donor. “My cousin is a police officer outside of Seattle. She called me one day and said she was coming to Columbus to finish testing because she was informed that she was a match,” Tipple says. “How do you thank someone who says that?”
She was a match and Tipple had his second transplant on Aug. 2, 2011. Since then, things have been great, he says. But then there is that elusive degree from Butler.
Getting that Piece of Paper
Travis Ryan met Tipple about five years ago. He didn’t know much about him, but invited him to Butler’s campus to speak to a seminar class about potential opportunities to pursue research projects. “I had no idea about his background, but I knew he had a ton of experience in the research field and thought, as a Butler graduate, he could inspire our students,” says Ryan, who is the Biological Sciences Department Chair at Butler. “When we spoke after his talk and I learned about his background, and I remember thinking we should really look into trying to get Trent his official degree. He embodies everything Butler is about.”
Tipple was extremely excited about the idea.
“It always came up in job interviews and things like that,” he says. “But more than that, I know it is just a piece of paper, but it really means something important to me. My time at Butler was extremely valuable and meant a lot to me and to know that I officially graduated would mean a lot.”
Ryan worked with many people at Butler to make it official. Many courses that Tipple completed at IU’s School of Medicine, it ended up, could be counted toward the credits he was missing at Butler.
After 23 years, Tipple will be officially graduating from Butler.
Tipple tries to get back to Indianapolis, and specifically, Butler’s campus at least once a year. He usually returns for a basketball game or two, and comes each May for the Indianapolis 500.
Unfortunately, he won’t be here for the spring commencement ceremony on May 11. It is a bit harder now. In 2014, he started working at the University of Alabama at Birmingham as an associate professor. He is Director of the Neonatal Redox Biology Program and his work has been continuously funded by the National Institutes of Health since 2007. Tipple also serves as the Director of Neonatology Faculty Development and Program Co-Director of Neonatal-Perinatal Fellowship Program.
“After everything, I am doing what I love. I am teaching, I have a research lab, and I also see patients. I love doing all of that and it is exactly what I always wanted to do,” he says. Tipple plans to be back in Indianapolis at the end of May for the Indianapolis 500. He will be stopping by Butler’s campus. And this time, he will be picking up a diploma.
“It feels great to just come full circle after everything,” Tipple says. “I appreciate everything Butler did for me and with all I have been through and all the people who supported me and were there for me, everyone really made this happen.”
Feature: Trent with his wife at medical school graduation (left). Tren with his son at a Butler Basketball game (right).
Top: Trent at Butler with fraternity brothers.
Middle: Trent with his cousin who donated a kidney.
Bottom: Trent with his family on a trip to Germany in 2008.