University Health Transplant Institute marked an important annual milestone as it closed out 2022: it had performed more pediatric kidney transplants with organs from living donors than any other transplant program in the country.
The credit for much of that success goes to the Institute’s Champion for Life program, which helps patients needing organs reach potential donors. Patients identify a donor champion who supports them as they learn how to share their stories on social media and among networks of friends and relatives.
“Most Americans do not want to share news of bad health and are reluctant to ask for help,” said Jennifer Milton, chief administrator for the Transplant Institute. “The Champion for Life program works to remove that obstacle by finding the patient a champion, then giving them the tools, training and empowerment to share the patient’s story. People respond. They just step forward,” said Milton.
When Gwyn Deleon’s kidneys began to fail, she used training techniques taught through the Champion for Life program to share her need for a donor with her hometown newspaper in Devine, southwest of San Antonio. Readers were so moved that 107 people offered to undergo evaluation as possible kidney donors for the 15-year old. She now faces a healthy future after receiving her transplant Nov. 17.
“There are times you are praying there’s good in the world,” said Jeremy Deleon, Gwyn’s father. “Everyone in this community just stepped forward. To see that is very powerful.”
Benefits of living organ transplants
Identifying a living kidney donor for a child means they may receive a desperately needed organ within months as opposed to waiting an average of five years for a deceased donor, growing increasingly ill as time passes.
Dr. Francisco Cigarroa, a transplant surgeon and director of the Transplant Institute, says kidneys from living donors have a higher success rate than those from deceased donors and they preserve a child’s quality of life.
“Living donor kidneys provide the very best long-term outcome in the pediatric population,” said Cigarroa, also a professor of surgery at UT Health San Antonio and the Carlos and Malú Alvarez Distinguished University Chair. “(They) allow transplantation to proceed in large part prior to a child having to undergo dialysis, which is stressful for the child and family,” he said.
According to the Organ Procurement Transplantation Network, OPTN, living donors last year provided kidneys for 10 children at the Transplant Institute, more than double the number in 2021. Other top performing programs transplanted between three and eight children with living donor kidneys.
In fact, for all the Transplant Institute living donor programs, 2022 was an exceptional year. The Institute performed its largest number of living donor transplants for adult and pediatric kidney patients and the most ever for adult liver patients. Every pediatric liver transplant also came from a living donor.