Transplant recipients get together to celebrate life

By Russell Rian 

Most came to celebrate another year of life. Others remained hopeful for the good news that a heart, a lung, a liver or a kidney would become available for them in the coming year and that they would join their successful brethren in celebration.

UT Southwestern’s second annual joint reunion combined the widely diverse family of patients, relatives and friends celebrating transplants.

Brian Roberson (left), Dr. Juan Arenas

“It’s good to see old friends, many of whom I haven’t seen in years,” said Dr. W. Steves Ring, chairman of cardiovascular and thoracic surgery. “That’s a good thing. It’s a great thing, in fact. I want to see everyone at the reunion rather than the hospital.”

Surgeons in the UT Southwestern Heart and Lung Transplant Program have performed more than 375 lung transplants and are approaching 700 heart transplants.

Among those celebrating was Brian Roberson, 21, of Fort Worth. After graduating from high school, Mr. Roberson headed to college and in his second semester, caught his roommate’s cold. But Mr. Roberson’s cough didn’t go away. Instead, the airborne virus led to viral cardiomyopathy, and within a week he had suffered two strokes. Doctors later determined that it was due to heart failure caused by an enlarged heart.

Tired, depressed and in pain during his recovery from the strokes, Mr. Roberson nevertheless held on, struggling to regain use of his limbs while learning he would eventually need a heart transplant to survive. News of an organ came on Christmas Day.

“At the point that they told me the good news, I was glad because I was in a lot of pain,” he said.

After the transplant, Mr. Roberson said, his determination was renewed.

“I was hell-bent on getting back to normal. I remember I was walking the next day. And I was talking on the phone,” he said.

Mr. Roberson has since returned to college and is tutoring for the Richardson Independent School District while he completes his degree requirements. He is scheduled to earn his diploma in spring of 2011 and hopes to launch his teaching career, passing along his love of history to new generations.

Transplant is a specialty characterized by change, with lots of ups and downs and uncertainty, noted Dr. Juan Arenas, chief of surgical transplantation.

Speaking to those gathered for the event, Dr. Arenas, surgical director of the liver transplant program, said, “One thing remains certain. We all remain committed to transplantation because we have witnessed through all of you how transplantation changes lives.”

In the past year, the liver-kidney program he oversees added more than 90 people to the waiting list, and 41 patients received organs — 13 from living donors and 28 from deceased donors.

“That’s 41 people who can live longer; 41 significant others who can focus on the future again and who can enjoy their children, grandchildren and friends. And 41 people who in turn can look forward to many future holiday gatherings with their loved one,” Dr. Arenas said. “Every one of these numbers and statistics represents the impact transplants can have on people’s lives.”

Dr. Ring holds the Frank M. Ryburn Jr. Distinguished Chair in Cardiothoracic Surgery and Transplantation.