A patient and a health care coordinator in a patient room.
Glenn Hudson is a living kidney donor and just one of the patients involved in the 434 total transplants that took place last year. He is pictured with Maureen Bell, a living kidney coordinator at VCU Health Hume-Lee Transplant Center. (Photo by Joseph Morris)

VCU Health is transplanting more organs than ever

In 2019, VCU Health conducted 434 organ transplants, more than any other year in its more than 60-year history.

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Glenn Hudson had been writing a letter for more than a week.

He took his time. He wanted it to be perfect.

There were rewrites, edits and restructuring. Hudson knew his work was done when he read his letter and began to cry.

“I wanted it to come from my heart,” he said.

The Chesterfield County resident and former behavioral health practice administrator knew he had something special. The letter, addressed to the “Hume-Lee Transplant Center Family,” would not be mailed. Instead, Hudson printed 150 copies and picked up gallons of milk, dozens of cookies and even vegetable trays and traveled to VCU Medical Center. With the snacks and letters in tow, he hand-delivered them to staff at the VCU Health Hume-Lee Transplant Center Gateway Building clinic and dedicated abdominal inpatient transplant unit.

He even brought enough for all staff shifts. The snacks were sweet, but it was the letter that had team members a little choked up.

A portion of the letter reads, “…you are doing something that cannot be bought or programmed to do. You are sharing your kindness, love, compassion, care, generosity, knowledge, blood-sweat-tears, but most of all, you are giving of yourselves for the healing of another human, at their weakest time and that cannot be easy.”

Hudson is a living kidney donor. In early 2019, he donated his right kidney to another in need. Much like his selfless act to give the gift of life to another, he wanted to thank the team who made his gift possible. Maureen Bell, living donor kidney coordinator at Hume-Lee, was the first staff member to receive Hudson’s moving letter.

“I read it right away, and I had to sit down. It was just amazing,” Bell said. “I’ve never received a gift like that from a donor.”

In her role, Bell works to test, match and clear for donation every living kidney donor at VCU Health. In 2019, there were 45 living donor kidney transplants. But the number doesn’t begin to reflect the tireless commitment to safely assess and match living donors with the right recipient. For example, several prospective donors may come forward for testing for a single recipient. Bell also works to educate patients on the benefits of living organ donation.

“I am just one member of an amazing team,” Bell said. “That’s why Glenn’s letter made such a lasting impact. It mentioned and recognized so many team members.”

From doctors and nurses to care partners, nutrition services and housekeeping staff, all were mentioned. Many of whom shed a tear after reading Hudson’s letter. They’re all part of a team that knows a single transplant is a life saved. A team of dozens of staff members who care for, coordinate and support a patient before, during and after an organ transplant or living organ donation.

And what a year to be acknowledged.

VCU Health conducted more total organ transplants in 2019 than any other year in its more than 60-year history.

Of the 434 total organs transplanted, 304 kidneys were transplanted, including simultaneous kidney and pancreas transplants, shattering 2018’s record of 202. By volume, this places VCU Health’s kidney transplant program at No. 11 in the U.S. and No. 5 on the East Coast, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. 

87 livers were transplanted, which is also a record in a calendar year for VCU Health.

And 35 hearts were transplanted. It’s the most heart transplants since 1988, when 47 were transplanted. Eight pancreases were also transplanted in 2019.

This helps place VCU among the top transplant centers on the East Coast.

According to Marlon Levy, M.D., the David M. Hume Endowed Chair of the Division of Transplant Surgery and director of the Hume-Lee Transplant Center, it’s an amazing chapter for one of the oldest transplant centers in the country. 

“This is a phenomenal accomplishment for the team, one our center could not have imagined a few short years ago,” Levy said. “And our work continues to be able to help patients from Virginia and beyond.”

One transplant team, one mission

In April 2019 — during National Donate Life Month — VCU Health formalized a unified transplant service line. This structure joins abdominal and thoracic transplant programs under one transplant umbrella to provide greater coordination and care for heart, kidney, liver, pancreas and mechanical circulatory support patients.

“This new structure brings our talented teams in various specialties together to support our mission of serving our community as a leader in organ transplant clinical care,” Levy said.

“It’s an exciting development for our team members and patients.”

A year unlike any other

A record-breaking year and a unified team headline 2019 for organ transplantation at VCU Health. In September, it shared the story of Edward Foster and Edward “Rick” Foster Jr., a father and son living-donor liver transplant pair. The elder Foster had battled a chronic disease that was pushing his liver to failure, primary sclerosing cholangitis. After a number of tests, his youngest son, Rick, was a match and donated a portion of his liver to his father. Their surgeries marked the first living liver transplant at VCU Health since 2014 by a reimagined living liver program, which included the addition of David Bruno, M.D., surgical director of adult and pediatric liver transplantation, and living liver donation expert Vinay Kumaran, M.B.B.S., who joined Hume-Lee as living liver surgical director. Kumaran’s resume includes more than 700 living liver donor cases.

VCU Health Living Liver Transplant

Underscoring a service line commitment to living donation, Layla Kamal, M.D., transplant nephrologist at Hume-Lee, was named its first living donor medical director. In this role, Kamal helps share the importance of living donation while overseeing stringent safety protocols for all living kidney donors.

In liver and kidney transplantation, living donation offers a number of advantages, such as getting a patient transplanted faster. The organ from a living donor is often healthier and so are recipients since they don’t have to spend as much time waiting for an organ. In addition, live donors add organs to the donor pool, increasing the number of transplants possible each year amid a national organ shortage.

In July, Hume-Lee established a minimally invasive section of transplant surgery. The dedicated section increases VCU Health’s commitment to provide patient-centered surgical care with leading technology, including robotic-assisted and laparoscopic transplantation.

Chandra Bhati, M.D., was named chief of the new minimally invasive section and leads a team of transplant surgeons who specialize in kidney, liver and pancreas transplants. The section provides a formal structure under which the team can prepare the next generation of transplant surgeons through robotics fellowship training.

In October, Hume-Lee announced the arrival of Aamir Khan, M.B.B.S., who specializes in kidney, liver and pancreas transplant surgery, and Seung Duk Lee, M.D., Ph.D., who specializes in kidney, liver, living donor and pancreas transplant surgery.

And in early 2019, the nation heard the heartwarming story of Carlnealius “Tyrees” Dandridge, a custodian at Pole Green Elementary School in Mechanicsville, Virginia. At age 59, Dandridge received a rare double-organ transplant — a kidney and a heart. Four months later, he returned to work to find his “family” of students lining the hallways, hugging and cheering for their beloved custodian. His return captivated the audiences of local and national news outlets.

Innovative approach to transplant care

Driving these successes is a commitment to expand organ access to patients. Unique approaches — such as the Hume-Lee-specific protocol that is behind the transplantation of hepatitis C kidneys — are the reflection of an innovative mindset, said Gaurav Gupta, M.D., medical director of Hume-Lee’s kidney and pancreas transplant program and associate professor of internal medicine and surgery.

“When we receive an offer for a kidney to transplant, we look at how we can use the kidney to provide the best benefit to the patient,” Gupta said. “We want to match the right organ with the right patient.”

Gupta said some centers look at just one side of the equation — the organ for transplant. However, every patient is different, and what might be an underperforming kidney for one patient, may be the perfect match for another when considering a number of factors, such as age. This, coupled with a team that excels in treating complex cases, helps save as many lives as possible.

“VCU is the place for transplantation,” Gupta said. “We treat patients as family.”

A point that was made in Hudson’s letter. “Your family never skipped a beat. They immediately started to make sure I felt welcomed and made sure that I began to get everything I needed and I knew this was happening to my plus one as well, but none of you cared that we had nothing to offer you back for your kindness and extreme hard work. It was at that moment, my weakest and most vulnerable time, that I realized in my foggy haze, that this was no ordinary family.”

To find out more about living-donor kidney transplantation, click here.