Long-term transplant survival: An answer to a 24-year-old question

Edith Helm (left) got a kidney from her identical twin Wanda in 1956 in OK

A quick history lesson before we tell you about Cindy Conrad:

Organ transplant was first attempted in the 1950s. At first, the only transplants performed were living donor kidney transplants between identical twins, who, being genetically identical, were automatically a perfect match.

In the 1960s and 1970s, surgeons tried other types of transplants. But steroids, like prednisone, were the only immunosuppressants available. Though these drugs suppressed the immune system, the doses needed to prevent organ rejection often caused very unpleasant and dangerous side effects. As a result, transplants were regarded as experimental.

But in 1983, cyclosporine, or Sandimmune, the first effective immunosuppressant drug with relatively few side effects hit the market.

Suddenly, organ transplant took off.

The former Barnes Hospital (now Barnes-JewishHospital) had been doing kidney transplants since 1963. In 1985, it established a heart transplant program. Later that year, it became the 16th hospital in the country to start a dedicated liver transplant program. By 1987, that program was firmly established.

The thing is, in 1987 people had no idea how long an organ transplant recipient could live. Yes, they’d come through the surgery. Yes, they’d return to a near-normal life. But how long would they eventually survive?

Some of the early identical twin transplant patients were still alive almost 20 years later. But they had living donor organs and didn’t have to take immunosuppressants.

Doctors thought it was reasonable to expect these post-Sandimmune patients would make at least five years after transplant if they had no complications. Beyond that? Who knew?

Enter Cindy Conrad.

 A young mother in the last trimester of her second pregnancy, Cindy had been feeling a little “off.” That “off” feeling turned out to be a rare complication of pregnancy that caused her liver to fail. In a matter of days, she delivered her baby, fell into a coma and had an emergency liver transplant.

She recovered from the transplant, but doctors secretly wondered if she’d see her children grow up.

Did she ever! Cindy is 24 years post-transplant and going strong (although she later had a tremendous hurdle to surmount – but, that’s another story).  Her hepatologist , Dr. Jeffrey Crippin, calls Cindy an example of  “the triumph of the human will.”

Read a blog post by her daughter, who was just a toddler at the time of the transplant: http://intheorangehouse.blogspot.com/2011/12/liver-girl.html

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Category: Organ donation, Patient Stories, Transplant

About the Author ()

Barnes-Jewish Hospital at Washington University Medical Center is the largest hospital in Missouri and the largest private employer in the St. Louis region. An affiliated teaching hospital of Washington University School of Medicine, Barnes-Jewish Hospital has a 1,800 member medical staff with many who are recognized as "Best Doctors in America." They are supported by residents, interns and fellows, in addition to nurses, technicians and other health-care professionals.

Comments (4)

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  1. Glenda Skelton says:

    I had a life saving heart transplant 7 years ago this friday at BJC. Unfortunately my Mother died of the same heart disease in 1980 when heart transplants were unheard of.

    • Kristin Hall says:

      Glenda – It’s too bad this came along too late for your mother. But congratulations to you on your milestone, and here’s wishing you many more years of good health and good life!

  2. Firmagaver says:

    This is really a Nice sharing & collection.

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