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