Celebrating 50 Years and Saving 5,000 Lives

14-year-old Hayes Atkins doesn’t realize it, but he is connected in a profound way to Joan Glicksman Wish, who died around the time he was born, and to 4,998 other people, young and old, Latino, Black and white, urban and rural, rich and poor, in a procession of changed lives that dates back half a century.

The recipient of a kidney transplant from a living donor – his mother, Sara – Hayes joins 499 other children and 4,500 adults who received a new lease on life over the last five decades, who were given the chance to dream dreams or finish dreams they had started.

Each of them, from Joan to Hayes, benefited from medical excellence not available to the world 60 years ago. These 5,000 brave individuals chose life and placed their trust in expert teams of transplant surgeons; anesthesiologists; kidney, liver, lung and other specialists; nurses; and technicians. By stepping into the unknown to be healed, they entered the historic legacy of the University Transplant Center – the transplant partnership of The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UT Health San Antonio) and University Health (formerly University Health System).

“This is a really special moment: our 5,000th transplant, our 500th pediatric transplant and our 50th year anniversary,” said pediatric and adult transplant surgeon Francisco G. Cigarroa, MD. He is director of the University Transplant Center and occupies the Carlos and Malú Alvarez Distinguished University Chair in Pediatric Transplant Surgery at UT Health San Antonio’s Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long School of Medicine.

“The city of San Antonio and the region we serve have benefited profoundly by the whole vision of our transplant center, which began with the founders of the organ transplantation programs, extended through the decades of great transplant teams, and proudly continues today in each of the 265 current professionals of the University Transplant Center,” Dr. Cigarroa said.

Transplantation science was in its infancy in January 1970 when Joan Wish received the first successful kidney transplant. In the 1980s, the transplant center performed its first heart, heart-lung and single-lung transplants. In 1989, its team performed the first lung transplant in the world to treat pulmonary hypertension. And in 1992, the center ushered in a new era of liver transplantation. During the last 20 years, kidney and liver transplants of organs donated by living persons have become common; today living donations make up a third of all transplants at many centers. Innovations continue today, including a specimen biorepository and a Center for Life to maximize the care of deceased donor organs.

“Fifty years of firsts require 50 years of approvals,” said Jennifer Milton, BSN, CCTC, MBA, University Transplant Center chief administrative officer. “It is not easy to go to a dean, a president, a CEO, a COO, or an ethics or quality panel and say, ‘We’ve got an idea, we think it’s going to work well, or we want you to open a new donor center. The people always have big eyes in response, but we eventually get there.”

The firsts began with Joan Wish and have continued through Hayes Atkins, all for the noble cause of saving lives.

“I’ll just put in a unique perspective,” Dr. Cigarroa said, who before rejoining the University Transplant Center full time in 2015, served as president of UT Health San Antonio for eight years and as chancellor of The University of Texas System for six years, all the while performing transplants on selected weekends.

“When I was chancellor, I would go to many, many, many graduations, and I would get to see a lot of students getting their diplomas,” he said. “At one graduation in Brownsville, I gave a young woman her degree and she said, ‘Can I take a picture with you?’ I said, ‘Of course.’ Then she said, ‘But this is a very special picture because 19 years ago you did my liver transplant.’

“She graduated and is now going into engineering,” Dr. Cigarroa said. “And that’s exactly what we do: We save lives to enable people to reach their highest human potential, to give them an opportunity that, if they dream it, they can do it. And we want them to be able to dream it and do it. That’s why we still wake up every morning with passion for what we do. We see that human story every day.”

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