- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 26, 2004

It is fitting that Thursday was the 50th anniversary of the first organ transplant, just two days before Christmas. That first kidney transplant was the gift that kept on giving, every day, every minute, for the next eight years, starting on Dec. 23, 1954.

The first organ transplant facts make for a moving parable. Richard Herrick was dying of kidney disease when he received a kidney from his identical twin brother, Ronald. Kidney transplants had failed in the past, but the fact that the brothers were identical helped make the surgery a success. Richard was cared for in the hospital by Clare, a nurse from Nova Scotia, who volunteered to work that Christmas weekend since her family was far away. Richard and Clare subsequently married and had two children, one a nurse at a kidney dialysis unit and the other a teacher. Dr. Joseph E. Murray received the 1990 Nobel Prize for the transplant surgery.

Transplant surgery has come a long way, thanks to the innovations of the doctors themselves and improved immuno-suppression drugs that help prevent the body’s rejection of the donated organs. Heart, lung, kidney, liver and pancreas transplant surgeries are performed routinely. Intestines are also being transplanted, and experimental hand transplants continue in the United States and elsewhere. There are still long-term problems with transplants, though, and researchers continue to look for ways to allow recipients’ immune systems to accept transplanted tissue. The National Institutes of Health’s Immune Tolerance Network has approved various pilot studies to explore the biology of organ tolerance in humans.

Still, the biggest problem with organ transplantation remains a critical shortage of donors. Over 87,000 people are on the national waiting list for organs, but only 10,603 had donated as of December 17. More than 25,000 organ transplants are now performed in the United States each year. At the end of 2002, there were 150,000 people living with functioning solid organs transplanted from a donor, up from 62,000 in 1993.

This season of giving is a good time to think about organ donation. In the District of Columbia and the state of Maryland, residents can indicate their wish to be a donor when applying for or renewing a driver’s license. Virginia residents can also sign up online at https://www.save7lives.org. To find out how to become a registered donor in your area, visit https://www.shareyourlife.org/default.asp. Most importantly, though, interested donors should share their wishes with their loved ones, and, if they do not wish to register, they can carry a donation card with them. Giving life is surely the most generous act of all.

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