Organ transplant survivors help Miami institute
celebrate 40 years of success
ORGAN-TRANSPLANT SURVIVORS AT REUNION HELP INSTITUTE CELEBRATE DECADES OF SUCCESS
BY JAMES H. BURNETT III
Cliches generally annoy Andrea L. Kessler.
But there's one she says she doesn't mind: ``new lease on life.''
And that's because 20 years ago, Kessler was given one with a successful kidney and pancreas double organ transplant.
``You see things differently when you realize that under different circumstances you wouldn't be here,'' Kessler says.
``You take nothing for granted, not the smallest thing.''
Kessler, a 52-year-old Fort Lauderdale litigation attorney, shared her story and compared notes with fellow ``graduates'' of The Miami Transplant Institute at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center Monday, during the institute's 40th anniversary celebration.
Kessler was joined by other survivors, including Kathryn Smith, Ronnie ``Rock'' Walker, Julio Diaz, and Mark Frye, all of whom shared similar sentiments on their appreciation for living.
``You never think it could happen to you,'' said Walker, 54, a former University of Miami football standout. ``I worked out. I played basketball. I was in great physical condition. Or I thought I was. I looked good, anyway!''
In 2004, Walker, a corporate security consultant, suffered a stroke and discovered his heart was enlarged. After years of deteriorating health, he received a heart transplant this year, on May 19.
``I'm active again. And I feel great,'' Walker said. ``But I think what I got the most out of was enjoying every waking second.''
Smith's fond memories were framed in deja vu.
``It's hard to believe I'm back here,'' Smith, 31, said after the de facto class reunion.
``Back'' is the key word, considering Smith is a relatively new doctor -- a second-year pediatric resident at UM/Jackson, where 11 years ago she was a patient, getting a multiple-organ transplant.
``I was here for nine months back then,'' Smith said.
``I got new kidneys, new pancreas, so much more. And I built relationships with people here that are still around. It is life-altering, but not just because lives are being saved.''
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recognized the Miami Transplant Institute earlier this year for having one of the highest transplant success rates in the nation -- on par with Duke University and Johns Hopkins University hospitals.
HHS also awarded UM/Jackson silver and bronze medals (bronze being more prestigious than gold), for success in kidney and pancreas transplants.
About 10,000 transplants have been done at the Miami Transplant Institute over the years, but fewer than 600 multiple-organ transplants like Smith's have taken place worldwide.
And more than half of those were done at UM/Jackson.
As significant as the numbers are the relationships patients have built with one another and their doctors.
Julio Diaz, 64, worked the room like a campaigning politician Monday, joking that he when he said nine years ago that he wanted to relive his youth, he didn't mean through a pediatric heart disease that struck him at age 55.
Diaz says his heart transplant has allowed him to resume golfing, and dancing dates out with his wife Elizabeth. He says that for the rest of his life he will celebrate two birthdays.
``Dec. 26, when I was born into this world, and Dec. 9, 2009, when I was reborn with my new heart, said the retired Coastal Petroleum worker.
Elizabeth Diaz said Julio's epiphany won't get him ``two sets of presents,'' but when she considers how she encouraged their adult children to say goodbye to him last year, he can celebrate as often as he wants.
``The relationship between transplant patients and their families and other transplant patients and the surgeons is unique among doctor-patient relationships,'' said Dr. George Burke, Joshua Miller Chair of the Transplant Program at UM/Jackson. ``
``We care for each other because we've grown close to each other as I've watched them get better, and as I've kept track of their progress and made adjustments over the months and years to their medications. They have to check in with me as well. We're stuck with each other!'''
If there was an elder statesman at the reunion Monday, it was Mark Frye, 51.
In 1986, Frye, then the owner of a construction equipment rental company, was struck in the head during a work accident. While being examined at Jackson, he learned his head was intact, but his heart was enlarged.
``Three weeks later, and I'd have been dead,'' Frye said Monday.
Frye became the institute's first heart transplant patient.
``I don't necessarily like being the guinea pig,'' he joked Friday. ``But I also figured since I was their first, they'd take extra special care of me. Wouldn't want the first to go bad!
``And I'm still kickin',so I'd say they did all right.''