Tragedies and Miracles In Medicine

Years ago, our head of trauma surgery developed explosive hepatitis. As a result, he developed failure of his liver and required a liver transplant. 

This was before we had a liver transplantation program at Henry Ford Hospital. 

One of the surgeon’s best friends ran one of the most successful transplantation programs in the country at a large Midwestern university. He was accepted there for urgent consideration of liver transplantation. 

We stabilized him in our medical intensive care unit and prepped him to be flown by aircraft to the center. 

As he was wheeled out of the ICU, I stopped the gurney and took his hand in mine.  I said, “I’ll see you when you get back.” 

Even with jaundiced eyes, his gaze pierced through me. “We’ll see,” he said. 

He died within a few days. No organs were available.

Flash forward a few years. 

I was called to the medical intensive care unit to provide a second opinion on a patient dying of end stage lung fibrosis. I knew the patient casually from his work with the hospital. 

I detailed his medical records, lung functions studies, CAT scans and ICU records. He was clearly dying and needed a lung transplant to survive. 

Lung transplantations are less common than liver transplantations. Most patients who could benefit from lung transplantation never have an opportunity to receive an organ. 

Over the next hour, he and I, along with his wife, spoke about his condition with the certainty that only a dying patient and his physician can have. 

As I was leaving that evening for a weekend trip, I stopped at his bedside and took his hand in mine. 

He said, “I’ll see you when you get back.” 

Even with cyanosed skin surrounding his eyes, his gaze pierced through me. 

“Of course,” I said.  But my eyes said, “We’ll see.” I knew he would be dead by the time I came back.

I received a call within the day: Lungs were available in another state and our surgeon was in flight.

The lungs were too large, with a spot on the lung that could be something that would prevent transplantation, like cancer or infection. The lungs were already rejected by another center. 

Our surgeon, with the relentlessness we want in all of our surgeons, said, “A death should not occur in vain. We’ll take the lungs, trim them to size, figure out what the spot is (it was a minor benign process), and get them to Detroit.” 

He transplanted the lungs and the patient remains vigorous to this day.

It’s the greatest miracle that I have seen in my career.

Transplantation of human organs continues to be one of the great accomplishments of modern medical science. 

Although not perfect and not without need for lifelong care with medications and oversight, the transformation of patients dying of organ failures to patients with life and measures of vitality is remarkable.

But behind all of the triumphs of transplantation are the tragedies of the donor and those who remain waiting. 

Each transplantation (other than the living donor programs which, in and of themselves, are a remarkable story) occurs because of the tragic death of another – usually someone who is too young, dying in an accident or of a catastrophic brain event.

The donor and his or her family are the unselfish heroes of these miracles. 

They give the ultimate gift: The gift of life.

But there are the tragedies of the patients who are listed, but uncalled to receive transplantation. 

Uncalled because of the insufficient supply of organs available.

Uncalled because many of us, in some way, believe signing up to become an organ donor is a reminder of our own potential tragedies.

Trust me (I’m a doctor). I am fairly certain that wherever you are going after doctors and nurses approach your family with the prospect that you could be an organ donor, you will not need the spare parts.

Turn tragedies into miracles. Sign up to be an organ donor.

If you live in Michigan, visit Gift of Life Michigan to learn more about organ donation or sign up to become an organ donor on the Henry Ford Health System Gift of Life Donor page

For more information about organ transplantation, visit the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS).

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3 thoughts on “Tragedies and Miracles In Medicine

  1. As the family member of a liver transplant recipient , I would encourage EVERYONE to sign up to be an organ donor. With the liver transplant that my brother received, he lived for 14 years. That’s 14 years that we would not have had him if the liver hadn’t been donated by another person.

    When it’s my turn to go – all my organs, corneas, skin, etc are all slated to be donated. What better post-death gift to I give to someone who can live?

  2. Before you sign up please consider the other side of the story. Sometimes, it’s not all that happy of one. Perhaps more than we know. My older brother received a heart transplant at Uof M in 1985. At the time he was a 38 year old Highland Park police officer. I remember just before the transplant he looked at me and said, “Joey, I don’t want to die”. I told him I agreed but the choice was his alone. Four years later he told me that he wished he hadn’t gone through with it because he had been miserable, mostly from the meds. The steroids “puff” you up and the anti-rejection drugs cause hair to grow where it shouldn’t. And then there is the gout. He had a condition called cardiomyopathy. He died in 1990. My father had it, he died in 2004. I have it – no set departure date. What I’m getting at, is that maybe a few extra years isn’t all that great. Maybe medicine is going where it shouldn’t. Maybe when it is time to say goodbye, just say goodbye. I miss him, a lot, but I try to remember him pre-transplant because that is when he was himself. When we watched American Bandstand, or when he told him Vietnam stories, or his exploits in ‘the Park”, the two us compaining about whatever was popular to complain about at the time. So, if donating makes you feel good about yourself – so be it, but remember there is another side to the story. Are you really helping someone?

  3. I received a liver 4 years ago today, 2/24/11. I can’t tell you it has been easy but I can tell you it was a lot more difficult for my donor and his family. I could never express the gratitude I feel for what a complete stranger did for me and my family. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t thank God, my donor and his family for the greatest gift, life. Taking the meds and doctor’s appointments are not fun but it is something you must do. It is very little compared to what was given up for you, I been been afforded another chance and you learn not to take life, family, friends and all mankind for granted anymore. You realize that there may not be a tomorrow. I was very lucky to have the greatest team of doctor’s anywhere and that place is Henry Ford – Detroit!! They never sugarcoated it for me but treated me with patience, kindness and above all honesty. I can’t say I always liked the news but I realize it was for my own good. You never realize how many heros you run across in your everyday life. I realize it now. There is no reason not to be a donor. Believe me you don’t need them on your next journey, but someone here on earth does. Just remember it could be you or a loved one.

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