Transplant without borders
Woman travels coast to coast for lifesaving kidney transplant
By Melissa Smiles
For many transplant patients, the call for a lifesaving organ usually comes in the middle of the night. For ReAnne Walcott, it came while she was on vacation outside the continental United States.
Florida resident Walcott was in Kona, Hawaii, when she received the call that a donor kidney matching her rare blood type was available in July.
“There is only so much time where an organ is transplantable,” said Shelly Morgan, R.N., the Shands at UF kidney transplant coordinator who was on-call when the organ became available. “Communication and coordination are imperative.”
Three flight connections and one car ride later, Walcott made it back to Gainesville to receive her healthy, new kidney.
About 10 percent of people waiting for a transplant in the United States are blood type B like Walcott. Patients with this rare blood type typically wait the longest for a kidney match, about four years in Florida and up to nine years in New York. Walcott waited just a little more than a year.
Several centers turned down the kidneys, which came from an infant donor, making them more technically challenging to transplant than adult kidneys. The Shands Transplant Center accepted the kidneys and split them between two recipients.
“It would have been easy for us to turn these kidneys down, as other centers did,” Morgan said. “The challenge is deciding how we can use them because we are here to safely maximize the scarce resource of donor organs to help the patients.”
Ivan Zendejas, M.D., an assistant professor of surgery in the UF College of Medicine, performed the transplants. He said many centers do not transplant pediatric kidneys into adults or may choose to implant two small kidneys into only one recipient.
“We know how hard it is to do two transplants out of a single pediatric donor and how long blood type B patients wait to receive a life-saving organ, but we had the chance to duplicate the gift of the family that donated their child’s kidneys, and that means a lot.”
Walcott has since met the recipient of the other kidney, Ja’mes Thomas. The mate kidney recipients affectionately call each other “Sis” and are doing well. The young kidneys will grow with them and mature to each patient’s size, allowing them to live healthy and active lives free from dialysis.
The kidneys were the smallest Zendejas has transplanted. He credits a skilled academic program, a dedicated multidisciplinary team, and up-to-the-minute communication for the successful outcome.
“The training that I received here at the University of Florida was so complete with a lot of expertise to do these kinds of cases,” Zendejas said. “It’s a combination of having skilled people who are willing to do the tough cases and experienced mentors who are here to guide you.”