October 30, 2019

VUMC reaches milestone 6,000th kidney transplant

The Vanderbilt Transplant Center recently celebrated its 6,000th kidney transplant.

Vanderbilt Transplant Center members recently held a reception celebrating the 6,000th kidney transplant since the program’s inception.
Vanderbilt Transplant Center members recently held a reception celebrating the 6,000th kidney transplant since the program’s inception. (photo by Anne Rayner)

by Matt Batcheldor

The Vanderbilt Transplant Center recently celebrated its 6,000th kidney transplant.

The kidney transplant program is the center’s longest-tenured program, dating back 57 years. In 2018, Vanderbilt performed 227 kidney transplants, nine of which were pediatric kidney transplants.

“This achievement is a testament to the strong leadership, dedication of every individual associated with the program and the generosity of the donors,” said Seth Karp, MD, H. William Scott Jr. Professor and chair of the Section of Surgical Sciences and director of the Vanderbilt Transplant Center. “Each one of the 6,000 transplants represents a life-changing event, and we are fortunate to be able to serve our community to such a significant degree over a prolonged period of time.“

Vanderbilt performed its first kidney transplant on Oct. 3, 1962, when a kidney from a deceased child was transplanted into an adult with renal failure. The occasion was the first organ transplant in Nashville and one of the first in the South.

“The Vanderbilt kidney transplant program is one of the oldest and, now, one of the largest kidney transplant programs in the country,” said David Shaffer, MD, professor of Surgery and chief of the Division of Kidney and Pancreas Transplantation. “This milestone of surpassing 6,000 kidney transplants is a testament to the extraordinary dedication and commitment of our multidisciplinary team at Vanderbilt. It’s also a testament to the gift of living donors and deceased donor families that allow us to help so many people with kidney failure.”

Attendees at the event celebrating the achievement featured multiple speakers, including C. Wright Pinson, MBA, MD, Deputy Chief Executive Officer and Chief Health System Officer for VUMC and former director of the Transplant Center.

The 6,000th recipient was Tom Minetree of Sheffield, Alabama, who received a kidney from his son, Sean, in May.

For Tom, an elder law attorney and former operator of a chain of cancer centers, the transplant brought a return to normal life after years of declining kidney function.

“I was applying for life insurance probably 15 years ago and the physical showed that I had protein in my urine,” he said. “It was one of those things that slowly got worse.”

Last summer, Tom’s condition had reached the point where he needed home peritoneal dialysis, which requires being hooked up to a machine for about nine hours every night to clean his kidneys. “I dealt with a lot of fatigue and standard metallic taste in my mouth and the itchy skin, nausea,” he said.

Tom is a private person who didn’t tell a lot of people about his condition, even his three children. “We found out when he was pretty deep in it,” his son, Sean, said. “It was taking a lot out of him, even though he wouldn’t admit it. He didn’t want to go anywhere, because he knew he’d have to spend all that time hooked up. It was affecting his sleep, so he was really sluggish and his energy was really low. It wasn’t pretty to see. We were trying to get him to move forward to get a transplant as fast as possible.”

It came down to who was the best match. And it was Sean, 21 at the time.

“As soon as we found out, it was never a question of whether he was going to get a kidney,” Sean said. “It was just who was going to do it.”

Tom was reluctant to put one of his children through the transplant process. “It took about eight months … to convince me that this was something I should do rather than waiting for a deceased donor,” he said. A deceased organ from the transplant list may take years to arrive, if at all.

Vanderbilt had an opening for a transplant on May 14. Sean had a break in his classes in engineering school at Auburn University. The stars had aligned.

Sean never had a second thought of donating to his dad. “He’s so important to our family and has done such a good job of being part of our lives,” he said. “The risk to our individual health compared to how much it would hurt if something happened and he was no longer part of our lives — it wasn’t even close.”

Tom’s operation went well and he recovered quickly. “I was walking a mile probably 10 days after I had surgery,” he said.

“Top to bottom, I was very impressed with the doctors,” he said. “And I used to manage physicians. The nurses were great. Very, very top notch. Everybody was.”

Sean’s recovery was a bit slower, which is common since living donors are in such good health and need to take time to recover from surgery. But three months later, he, his older brother and friends were hiking the 26.8-mile Four Pass Loop in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, scaling four passes with an elevation of over 12,400 feet. “I feel fine now and it really hasn’t been that long, relatively,” he said.

Patients now normally live with their transplants for years and have a functioning kidney at the time of their death, a major change from the beginning of the program, when organ rejection was very common.

The first transplant patient in 1962 underwent two additional surgeries and died five days after the transplant. After the second transplant, performed at the Veterans Administration hospital, the patient died within 24 hours. Seven months later, on May 29, 1963, H. William Scott, MD, and Charles Zukoski, MD, performed the first pediatric kidney transplant at Vanderbilt. The 17-year-old’s new kidney was rejected in 14 days and the patient died 26 days after the transplant.

But Vanderbilt doctors soldiered on, and patients began to live years after their transplants. The next patient lived 23 months, and another lived seven years.

Now transplant patients are living longer than ever before. Patient Patsy Williams is thought to have lived longer with her kidney transplant than anyone else at Vanderbilt, celebrating her 40th anniversary this year of living with her brother Barry’s donated kidney.

“Although we are celebrating 6,000 kidney transplants, innumerable lives have been impacted — not only for these recipients but also for so many donors, as well as all of these pairs’ loved ones,” said Rachel Forbes, MD, MBA, assistant professor of Surgery and associate chief of the Division of Kidney and Pancreas Transplantation.

“It’s very special to be a part of this legacy.”