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Two Texas transplant programs team up to save lives

UTSW, University Health Transplant Institute in San Antonio help patients begin 2024 with new kidneys and renewed hope

Parsia Vagefi, M.D.<
Parsia Vagefi, M.D., Professor of Surgery and Division Chief of Surgical Transplantation at UT Southwestern, holds the Ernest Poulos, M.D., Distinguished Chair in Surgery.

DALLAS – Feb. 14, 2024 – Two hard-to-match transplant patients 250 miles apart are starting 2024 on a new path to healthy lives. That’s because UT Southwestern Medical Center’s Solid Organ Transplant Program and University Health Transplant Institute in San Antonio searched beyond their own institutional networks to identify compatible living kidney donors for their failing patients.

“It was great to be able to collaborate with our colleagues in San Antonio and find a solution to help these two families,” said Parsia Vagefi, M.D., Division Chief of Surgical Transplantation at UT Southwestern Medical Center, who led the surgical team in Dallas.

“It was a real joy to work with another transplant center devoted to living donation, which is always the preferred type of donor for a patient,” said Elizabeth Thomas, D.O., the surgeon who led the transplant team at University Health. Kidneys provided by living donors tend to be healthier, and waiting for a deceased donor can take years, she said.

UT Southwestern is one of the nation’s premier academic research and medical centers and part of the University of Texas System. The Transplant Institute is a nationally recognized program owned by University Health, the highly rated public health care system in Bexar County. University Health’s academic partner is the Malú & Carlos Alvarez Center for Transplantation, Hepatobiliary Surgery and Innovation at UT Health San Antonio, also part of the UT System.

Finding kidneys for patients in need

Jorge Mendez
Jorge Mendez (left) and co-worker Svetlana Balmeo Stockdale.

The two organizations came together when Ann Winer, 71, a retired San Antonio nurse anesthetist, and Jorge Mendez, 48, an automotive shop foreman in Dallas, could not find suitable living kidney donors within their home transplant programs. The leaders at both institutions began working together to save the lives of their patients who were relying on dialysis to compensate for their failing kidneys.

Ann Winer and Rebecca Warden
Ann Winer (right) and her daughter, Rebecca Warden.

Winer’s daughter, Rebecca Warden, intended to donate to her mother, but agreed to donate to another patient in exchange for her mother receiving a transplant. Mendez’s coworker, Svetlana Balmeo Stockdale, offered to donate one of her kidneys to someone she had never met if that led to Mendez getting his transplant.

The organizations’ sophisticated HLA laboratory teams jointly worked their magic. By combining donor networks, they now had more potential living donors. That enabled them to successfully identify genetic traits that made Winer’s daughter a good match for Mendez and Mendez’s coworker a good match for Winer. The transplant teams then carefully choreographed surgical schedules and chartered flights to ensure the donated organs would be safely transported and transplanted as quickly as possible. On Aug. 31, after a day of superbly timed surgeries and close coordination, Winer and Mendez had the new functioning kidneys they thought they would never get.

“I felt like they’d never find a donor for me, but they did,” Winer said. On a card she sent to her Dallas donor, she wrote: “I will never be able to repay you.”

Mendez said he is grateful that he’ll now be able to spend time with his granddaughter. “Thank you very much,” he said to the donor. “I owe you the world.”

Building on a collaboration

Scott Bennett
Scott Bennett is Associate Vice President of Solid Organ Transplant at UT Southwestern.

Both transplant programs hope this collaboration spurs other programs across Texas to work together to save the lives of hard-to-match kidney transplant patients. A kidney is the organ in greatest demand for transplant, and healthy donors can live full lives after donating one of their two kidneys.

“A patient’s access to a lifesaving transplant shouldn’t be limited by geographic or organizational boundaries,” said Scott Bennett, Associate Vice President of Solid Organ Transplant at UT Southwestern. “It was rewarding to see the collective can-do spirit of two highly regarded programs collaborate to make it happen.”

“Institutional boundaries can often be a challenge. I just want to shake hands through them,” said Jennifer Milton, chief administrator for University Health Transplant Institute. “It’s a joy to work with another institution that’s willing to say: ‘Sure, let’s do this.’”

UT Southwestern Medical Center

UT Southwestern, one of the nation’s premier academic medical centers, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty members have received six Nobel Prizes and include 26 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 21 members of the National Academy of Medicine, and 13 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators. The full-time faculty of more than 3,100 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide care in more than 80 specialties to more than 120,000 hospitalized patients, more than 360,000 emergency room cases, and oversee nearly 5 million outpatient visits a year.

University Health Transplant Institute

University Health Transplant Institute in San Antonio is a nationally recognized transplant program and leader in living organ donation. It is owned by University Health, San Antonio’s only locally owned health system and the only academic medical center in South Texas. Its University Hospital serves as the region’s Level I trauma center for adults and children. Its new Women’s & Children’s Hospital is state-designated at the highest level for both its Maternity Center and Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Outpatient care is provided through a comprehensive network of urgent, primary and specialty care centers. For more than 100 years, University Health has been committed to delivering compassionate, culturally competent and high-quality health care, based on a strong foundation of outcomes‐based research and innovative teaching.