Transplants at UTSW expand at steady pace

By Remekca Owens

UT Southwestern Medical Center’s solid organ transplant program has come a long way since its start nearly 50 years ago, when Dr. Paul Conrad Peters successfully completed the first kidney transplant in Texas.

Organ Donation
Ellen DuVernay (left) hugs lung transplant recipient Nancy Suarez Lee, who received the lungs of Ms. DuVernay’s daughter, a registered organ donor who was killed in a golfing accident. (David Gresham Photo)

As the program nears its half-century milestone in 2014, UT Southwestern to date has completed more than 1,300 solid organ transplants. Last year, UT Southwestern physicians performed 60 heart and LVAD transplants and 50 kidney transplants. And during the past four years, the number of liver transplants completed has tripled – from nine in 2009 to 29 in 2012.

In 2012, UT Southwestern’s Lung Disease and Transplantation Program’s transplant volume ranked second regionally, and among the top 10 transplant programs nationally.

Of the nearly 400 lung transplants completed at UT Southwestern to date, the story of lung transplant recipient Nancy Suarez Lee brings home how one family’s decision to donate can make a lifesaving difference, and in this case impact both donor family and recipient.

Ms. Lee, of North Richland Hills, underwent a bilateral lung transplant at UT Southwestern in late 2011 after pulmonary fibrosis almost completely compromised her lung function. Her disease was a byproduct of a form of albinism known as Hermansky-Pudlak syndrome, a genetic metabolic disorder that is common among people of Puerto Rican ancestry.

Her life was spared after Britney Saucier, a 26-year-old registered organ donor from Gulfport, Miss., died following a golfing accident. “My daughter was a unique person,” said Ms. Saucier’s mother, Ellen DuVernay. “Even in the world’s worst situations, she found the sunlight. It’s a proud feeling, knowing that your daughter is so giving of herself.”

Nearly two years after receiving the lung transplant, Ms. Lee’s desire to express her gratitude to the donor’s family came true. The families, now close friends, met for the first time in January.

“I don’t even have the words to describe the feeling of meeting them,” Ms. Lee said. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m getting to meet the mother of my lungs.’” 

UT Southwestern’s transplant programs offer a full range of expertise to help any patient in need – from burn victims and those losing their sight to those who stand in dire need of a heart, lung, kidney, or liver transplant. The internal network of researchers, physicians, surgeons, nurses, and transplant coordinators all working together to save and restore patients’ lives has solidified UT Southwestern as one of the top transplant providers in the nation.

“Having two transplant intake coordinators who are available 24/7 is something that takes our patient-care commitment to the next level,” said Carolyn Swann, Associate Vice President for Heart, Lung, and Vascular, and Solid Organ Transplant Services at UT Southwestern University Hospitals and Clinics.

As an academic medical institution, UT Southwestern offers patients access to clinical trials both on campus and nationwide. UT Southwestern transplant research includes studies aimed at expanding the donor pool and at developing new methods of preserving and evaluating organs.

There are few acts more selfless than offering the gift of life, and the need for that gift is great. As of late March, more than 120,000 people were on the national waiting list for an organ transplant. To increase awareness of the importance of organ, tissue, and eye donation, each April the United Network for Organ Sharing promotes National Donate Life Month.

“The need for organ donation is well-known, but most people don’t realize how large the need is for eye and tissue donation comparatively,” said Donna Drury, Director of UT Southwestern’s Transplant Services Center. “More individuals are eligible to be an eye and tissue donor than can donate organs. This gives people the option to help in so many ways.” 

The Transplant Services Center manages eye and tissue donations for UT Southwestern patients as well as for hospitals nationwide. Each year, the Center assists with more than 14,000 transplants by providing grafts for procedures such as cornea transplants, mastectomy reconstruction, skin transplantation, heart valve replacements, and various surgeries using bone allografts.