Kidney Transplant Program History
When he first came to Grand Rapids in 1970, the last thing Dr. William Bowman wanted was to help start a kidney transplant program. During an earlier nephrology fellowship in another city, he had seen too many bad outcomes in kidney transplantation, then in its infancy.
At that time, doctors had only two drugs — prednisone and Imuran — to fight the ever present threat of organ rejection.
“The going was very rough,” said Bowman, the first nephrologist, or kidney specialist, to set up practice in Grand Rapids. “There were a number of challenges. I was not interested in transplantation at all when I got here.”
Dr. John Pierce, an internal medicine specialist who set up a dialysis program in Grand Rapids, convinced him to change his mind. While dialysis could keep patients who were suffering kidney failure alive, it was no substitute for a real, functioning kidney. At the time, patients with end-stage kidney disease had to travel to Detroit, Ann Arbor or out of state for transplants.
Establishing West Michigan’s first transplant program would not be easy. Two urologists, Dr. James Watkins and Dr. David Horning, vascular surgeon Dr. Larry Robson, and general surgeon Dr. Robert Levine joined Bowman in planning the kidney transplant program. They traveled to Cleveland Clinic and other hospitals that already were doing transplants, and they studied the technique under experienced surgeons.
In addition, the program would need a transplant coordinator and critical care nurses specialized in caring for transplant patients. It would mean upgrading a laboratory to monitor the kidney function of transplant patients and training pathologists to analyze biopsies.
And it would require a hospital willing to make the investment and take the risk of starting the new program. The administrators at Saint Mary’s, now known as Mercy Health Saint Mary’s, stepped up.
“We had a team of people who were committed to making it work,” said Levine, the program’s first surgical director. “The other thing is the support we had from Saint Mary’s hospital. They took a risk in getting it started.”
Saint Mary’s “took a very high moral stance on this,” Robson said. “It was not a money maker for any of us at all.”
The need for a transplant program was beyond question. Michigan’s only existing programs — both many miles across the state — were overwhelmed with patients, and an increasing number of them were spending years on dialysis.
“If you have people on dialysis and you’re keeping them alive, you have a moral obligation to start a transplant program,” Levine said.
The outcomes had to be at least as good as the patients would experience in the established centers, said Bowman, who became the program’s first medical director.
“If we were going to try this grand experiment, we couldn’t have excessive mortality,” he said. “We couldn’t do it on the backs of our patients. Whether or not this was going to work remained to be seen.”
He and the other physicians decided to first initiate a kidney retrieval program, removing the organs from deceased donors and sending them for transplant elsewhere. The Grand Rapids program quickly became the state’s most successful kidney procurement program.
By early 1973, the physicians and the hospital were ready to perform their first kidney transplants. That first year, they performed nine transplants. Twenty-five years later, five of those nine kidneys were still functioning. Two are still functioning 40 years later, well beyond the normal length of time for a transplanted kidney.
The program quickly grew, drawing patients from throughout West Michigan. During the 1970s, the program averaged 13 transplants a year. By the 1990s, it averaged 50 a year, and hospital stays were much shorter. Today, Mercy Health Saint Mary’s performs an average of 90 kidney transplants each year.
The five physicians who started the program, all now retired, still meet over lunch periodically.
“It’s something I’m very proud of and happy to have worked on with these fine gentlemen sitting here,” Bowman said.
“I can say ‘ditto,’” Levine added. “It’s still the highlight of my surgical career.”
The five know what they started 40 years ago not only has saved hundreds of lives but has improved the quality of life for countless patients.
“To me, it epitomizes what a physician is supposed to do, caring for people who can’t do it for themselves,” Horning said.
Added Watkins: “It’s what we all went into medicine for: to help people.”
Read about the story of one of our first patients to receive a kidney transplant >