Kidney Transplant Program celebrates 60th anniversaryOct. 27, 2022, 10:32 AM
by Matt Batcheldor
Sandra Thomas Walker, MD, will never forget the summer of 1972. She was beginning summer classes at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, studying to be a guidance counselor. Always healthy growing up, she suddenly came down with a persistent fever and chills. For answers, she went from hospital to hospital, eventually ending up at Vanderbilt University Medical Center with a diagnosis of kidney failure. She was just 20 years old.
Walker was so sick she had to drop out of classes and return home to Dayton, Tennessee, about 45 minutes north of Chattanooga. For months, she had to drive with her family through the East Tennessee mountains to VUMC three times a week, a six-hour round trip, for dialysis.
That all ended in January 1973, when Walker received a kidney transplant at VUMC and a second shot at life. As she prepares to celebrate her 50th anniversary of receiving a new kidney, the Vanderbilt Transplant Center is celebrating its 60th anniversary of its first kidney transplant, performed on Oct. 3, 1962. Since then, VUMC has performed more than 7,000 kidney transplants, of which Walker was one of the earlier cases.
“If they hadn’t been there for me when I really needed them,” Walker said, “I wouldn’t have survived. They saved me and gave me the best care.”
Walker has lived a healthy life and hasn’t experienced organ rejection issues, but rejection was not uncommon in the very early days of kidney transplants.
In 1962, Vanderbilt surgeons H. William Scott, MD, and Charles Zukoski, MD, transplanted the first kidney from a deceased child into an adult with renal failure. The occasion was the first organ transplant in Nashville and one of the first in the South. The patient 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, Scott and Zukoski performed the first pediatric kidney transplant at Vanderbilt on May 29, 1963, when a 17-year-old boy received a kidney from a deceased donor. The patient’s kidney was rejected at 14 days and the patient died 26 days after the transplant.
But Vanderbilt doctors soldiered on, and patients began to live longer and longer after their transplants. The next patient lived 23 months, and another lived seven years. In 1965, Vanderbilt launched a chronic dialysis program followed by the opening of a histocompatibility-testing lab in 1968. It wasn’t until 1970 that VUMC performed its first living donor kidney transplant, followed by the first pediatric living donor transplant in 1979 and the program’s first pancreas transplant in 1985.
When Zukoski left Vanderbilt, Robert Richie, MD, was asked in 1971 to lead the kidney transplantation program. For 30 years, Richie, along with H. Keith Johnson, MD, worked together to build one of the leading kidney transplant programs in the country.
The Adult Kidney Transplant Program would grow for nearly two more decades under the direction of David Shaffer, MD, professor of Surgery, chief and surgical director of the Division of Kidney and Pancreas Transplantation from 2001 to 2020. J. Harold Helderman, MD, professor of Medicine, would serve as medical director of the program from 1995 to 2018. The current chief is Rachel Forbes, MD, MBA, associate professor of Surgery.
“We are grateful for the over 7,000 kidney transplant patients that have entrusted us with their care since the start of the program 60 years ago,” Forbes said. “We want to always have our patients, their donors, and their loved ones in our minds as we strive to deliver high quality care and innovative options in kidney transplant for the next 60 years.”
Beatrice Concepcion, MD, associate professor of Medicine, is the current medical director of the Vanderbilt Kidney and Pancreas Transplant Program. On the pediatric side, Kathy Jabs, MD, associate professor of Pediatrics, serves as medical director of the Kidney Transplant Program at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.
“The kidney program has exhibited remarkable and sustained growth over an extended period of time, allowing more and more patients to lead a life free of dialysis,” said Seth Karp, MD, H. William Scott Jr. Professor and chair of the Section of Surgical Sciences and director of the Vanderbilt Transplant Center. “This brings accompanying benefits to the patient’s ability to enjoy daily activities, work, and live a longer and healthier life. We are grateful to all those who set up the program, sustained it, and to Dr. Forbes and Dr. Concepcion, who lead it.”
Today, patients normally live with their transplants for years and have a functioning kidney at the time of their death. For Walker, the gift of a donor kidney changed the course of her life. She went back to school and finished her degree, but she never became a school counselor. She began working for DCI Donor Services, traveling to schools across Tennessee to give programs about what organ donation is and how it benefits people.
Her brush with the medical field led her to Dallas to study to become a physician assistant and later attend medical school at the University of Texas. She became a doctor in internal medicine, practicing in Boston. She met and married another doctor — her husband, Phillip — moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, and had twins, Ben and Chelsea, who are now 32.
She often thinks back on the summer of ’72, and how Vanderbilt changed her life.
“They just did everything right, and I just sort of get a little teary eyed when I think about it,” she said. “They just gave me my life back and something you can never say thank you enough for, because they were just there when I needed them, and they knew what to do. I’ve had a good life because of all that special treatment that they gave me when I needed it.”