SI Vault
Robert Sullivan
February 12, 1990
The '88-89 comeback of the year in college hockey had nothing to do with wins or losses or dramatic slap shots in overtime. In fact, the University of New Hampshire won only 12 games while losing 22, which wasn't a grand improvement over the previous season's 7-20-3 record.
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February 12, 1990

A Transplant For The Coach

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After the incident, the university doctors referred Kullen to the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass., a place renowned for its diagnostic facilities. For four days in May, Kullen was given test after test. On the night before he was to receive the results, he was visited in his hospital room by Dr. Rob Malacoff. "He said, 'It could be this, could be that, it's probably this. There's a remote possibility it could be this other thing, but that's very, very rare.' " The next morning, Malacoff returned, and Kullen could tell by the look on his face that the news wasn't good. "He said, 'Well, it's the absolute worst. This is the disease you have—amyloidosis. There's no treatment for it. I don't know how long it will take, but it will get worse. And it's fatal.' " (Amyloidosis is a buildup of protein in the heart that prevents its muscle fibers from functioning normally.)

Kullen faced the task of buoying up his parents and fianc�e, then UNH women's sports information director and now interim women's athletic director Cathy Derrick, even as he faced the prospect of losing them. He was released and tried to resume parts of his usual routine. He found he could get through a round of golf, and so he signed up for the annual UNH coaches' outing on Cape Cod in June. Kullen grew fatigued on that trip, and ended up spending 10 days in a New Hampshire hospital with pneumonia.

After being released, he was constantly tired, and decided to stay at home. He was also losing weight each week and developing new aches. The crisis came in late July 1987. Down to 119 pounds and suffering again from pneumonia, he checked back into the Lahey Clinic. It was the pneumonia that nearly killed him; because of his deteriorating heart, he wasn't strong enough to fight the fluid buildup in his lungs. Each evening for five days the doctors told his family that Kullen probably wouldn't live until daybreak, and each morning they warned that he might not last until night.

After nearly a week, Kullen regained full consciousness. "I remember saying to the doctor as soon as I was revived, 'Look, if this heart's not working, what about getting a new one?' "

Malacoff had considered a transplant, but had doubted that Kullen was strong enough to survive the surgery. Nevertheless, he petitioned several hospitals, and Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh immediately accepted Kullen as a candidate. Unfortunately, the first heart available was too small, and Kullen was wheeled from the operating room back to his room. Three days later, on Aug. 29, he made the trip again, and this time received a new heart.

After a postoperative bout with a virus, Kullen started to gain weight and strength. "All fall it was a real gradual recovery," says Kullen. "I'd do 200 yards walking, then build up to a mile, two miles." He was getting himself in shape for Dec. 19. "We had put the wedding off for six months," he says, "and now I had to ask the doctors if I'd be strong enough to do it before Christmas. They said, 'Sure, you'll be skating in a month.' " He pauses, then continues slowly, "December 19th—that was an unbelievable day. It was snowing a little, a beautiful day. Christmas was coming. We got hitched right here on campus, and 250 friends came. It was something I had never dared to dream about."

It was about that time that Kullen took his first stroll by hockey practice. "Look over there. Kully's back!" Of course, he wasn't really. Holt and Kullen's assistant, Dave O'Connor, had agreed to split the coaching duties during the '87-88 season. "I didn't want to do it," says Holt. "But it seemed kind of important that Kully see UNH people doing it, so he wouldn't think his job was gone."

Not everyone thought Kullen should return. Hockey is everything to Wildcat fans, so while UNH backers throughout New Hampshire were happy that Kully was recovering, not all of them were sure they wanted a frail Kullen back as coach.

His superiors didn't hang out any welcome-home signs, either. "I had set my goals for '88: to get better and better, stronger and stronger, and to return to coaching," says Kullen. "But I found right away that there were some concerns about liability, about me passing out. My status as an employee was that I was on total disability [leave], and so I had to reapply for my job."

One afternoon Kullen found the UNH coaching position advertised in a local newspaper. He was hurt—and also determined to prove himself fit for the job. In the spring of '88 he was all over Durham, walking everywhere and getting in four or five rounds of golf each week at the Cocheco Country Club. He didn't look like a person who was a health risk, and finally, that summer, he was renamed the Wildcat hockey coach. On Sept. 26, 1988, he greeted his team at the season's first practice. "Men, it's good to be back," he said simply. "Now we're going to start with some one-on-ones...."

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