Today New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center’s kidney transplant program staged a big shindig to celebrate its three-thousandth successful transplantation. Over 600 donors and recipients and their friends and family members attended the event at the 168th Street Armory, three of whom had been transplanted over 30 years ago.
It was a joyful event, with press and PR photographers snapping a huge group picture of donors and recipients, speeches by New York Presbyterian-Columbia’s dream team of crack surgeons, and an appearance by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer to proclaim today Circle of Life Renal 3000 Day.
The first kidney transplant at New York Presbyterian-Columbia took place in 1969. In those early days of transplantation, only identical twins were considered viable transplant donor-recipient pairs, and the success rate was only 50 percent. Today, the success rate is 95%, and leading centers like Columbia’s are experimenting with what is known as ABO-incompatible transplantation, which neutralizes the problem of incompatible blood types; desensitization (removing antibodies to foreign tissue from a potential transplant patient’s blood), and paired kidney exchanges, multiple transplantations that occur simultaneously in one center so matching kidneys can be distributed among strangers. In one particularly impressive kidney swap, Columbia performed 12 simultaneous surgeries, giving six renal patients a new lease on life.
I was in the audience because in 2006, I became the two-thousand-and-something person to be transplanted at Columbia. Sitting at my table were the father-daughter team of Dennis Cronin and Kelly Jarer (pictured at left; Kelly donated a kidney to her dad), one man who had received a kidney off the donor registry after a year-and-a-half long wait, and two women in matching pink suits, white blouses and necklaces. They were Joann Lemons and Patti Moreno from Connecticut. Joann and Patti (below) met on a bus trip to New York City sponsored by the Red Hat Society, a social group for spunky over-50 women.
Joann and Patti had known each other only three years when Joann told Patti she had polycystic kidney disease and needed a transplant. Because potential donors in her family were also affected by the genetic disease, Joann needed look beyond her family circle for a donor. Patti passed the battery of tests required and donated a kidney to Joann. Just like that. Patti can’t understand why more people don’t donate, and says were she given a do-over, she’d make the same decision in a heartbeat.
The only thing missing on this special day was my sister and selfless donor, Julie, who lives in California and is doing just fine.
Although the event was largely celebratory, the one urgent message was this: we need more donors! In New York State, only 13 percent of those eligible are registered to be organ donors in the event of their death, very low compared to other states. There are barriers to registering in our state, such as the inability of potential donors to give electronic consent, and having to opt into the registry instead of consent being presumed. Legislation is pending to remove those barriers. Until that happens, however, 500 New Yorkers will die each year waiting for a compatible kidney donor.
So look for your state’s Donate Life program, and register to become an organ donor! In New York State, you can download the registration form for the New York State Donate Life Organ and Tissue Registry here.