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Kidney transplant patient, brother share 40-year journey

May. 8, 2019, 3:51 PM

Patsy Williams received her kidney from her brother, Barry Ford, 40 years ago at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Patsy Williams received her kidney from her brother, Barry Ford, 40 years ago at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. (photo by Susan Urmy)

by Matt Batcheldor

In 1979, Patsy Williams and her brother, Barry Ford, made a decision that has given her many more years of life.

Ford gave Williams his kidney at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. They recently gathered for a luncheon to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Williams’ transplant, along with dozens of their closest friends and family. She is thought to have lived longer with her transplant than anyone else who received one at Vanderbilt.

“He’s my hero,” said Williams, 74. “I told him at our luncheon, ‘what can you say to somebody who gives you 40 years extra life?’ Because they had told me back then if I didn’t have the transplant, I probably wouldn’t have lived another four or five years.”

Williams, who grew up in Nashville, had a sick childhood. Her right kidney didn’t grow from birth, remaining the size of a quarter. Her left kidney was compromised by multiple strep infections. She has been coming to Vanderbilt for treatment since she was 18.

By the time she was 34, she had been going to dialysis for three days a week for the previous two years. She needed a kidney transplant.

All six of her brothers and sisters expressed an interest in donating a kidney. Ford doesn’t remember why he was the sibling who ended up doing it. But he remembers when he decided to do it, during an orientation for potential donors.

“The thing that swayed me most of all was in the orientation when they told us that they found people who lived 90 years who had been born with one kidney and had one kidney all their lives. And I thought, well, I’ve got two and Pat needs one. And I could live with one.”

Vanderbilt started performing kidney transplants in 1963, but even by 1979 they were still somewhat unusual.

Back then, doctors weren’t sure how long patients could live with a transplant. The modern anti-rejection drug Cyclosporine had yet to be invented, said Anthony Langone, MD, associate professor of Medicine and medical director of the Medical Specialties Clinic, who has treated Williams for the last 20 years.

“Before the discovery of Cyclosporine in 1983, patients had a 50/50 likelihood of keeping their kidneys a single year,” he said. “Today, living donor kidneys are expected to have greater than 97% success at one year.”

Before Cyclosporine, patients were more likely to suffer organ rejection. But that was never a problem for Williams. To this day, she is only on a small dose of the anti-rejection drug Prednisone.

“Paradoxically, some of the modern medications are potentially toxic to the kidneys over time, resulting in long-term outcomes that have not improved on par with the short-term benefit,” Langone said. “Since Patsy’s immunosuppressive regimen is so benign, she has not succumbed to long-term drug toxicity. I suspect she has never had an acute rejection as she is likely a very close genetic match to her brother for the genes that are important in kidney transplantation. This would be expected by chance in 25% of one’s siblings. Her kidney function today is remarkably no worse than when she received her kidney 40 years ago.”

Williams has had the chance to live a very normal life for the last 40 years. She remembers how much energy she had after the transplant, and how her complexion changed from gray to normal.

Her daughter, Becky, was 14 when Williams had her transplant. She has watched her grow up and have a daughter of her own, Claire, who is now 20. They all live together in Pegram, Tennessee. Williams said she enjoys reading and going to the YMCA with her daughter and granddaughter.

Ford, who lives in Nashville, said he noticed no difference in his quality of life since donating his kidney. “I still dove off of bridges and cliffs,” he said. “I swam, skied. I installed carpet for 40 years, and that’s pretty physical.” He still enjoys playing music with his band, which was together for 20 years and reunites from time to time.

Williams and Ford said they hope their story will inspire others to donate.

“Living donors are such heroes in kidney transplant, as they make up half of all kidney donors annually,” said Rachel Forbes, MD, MBA, assistant professor of Surgery and associate chief of the Division of Kidney and Pancreas Transplantation. “Our living donor program truly admires and is dedicated to enabling those willing to share this gift of life, which can have such long-lasting and far-reaching effects.”

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