Meet Michigan Medicine: U-M Health Transplant Center

April 28, 2022  //  FOUND IN: Our Employees,

Last year, more than 41,000 organ transplants were performed in the U.S., a new record. Nearly 400 of those life-saving procedures were completed right here at Michigan Medicine by a dedicated team of experts in the U-M Health Transplant Center.

In honor of Donate Life Month, here’s a closer look at the Transplant Center teams who use cutting-edge technology to provide patients a new outlook on life.

More than 50 years of success

Michigan Medicine teams have been carrying out transplants since 1964. In that time, close to 13,000 patients have received a new organ here, making the U-M Health Transplant Center one of the largest in the country. 

Today, teams carry out adult and pediatric heart, kidney, liver, lung and pancreas transplant procedures. Among those, kidney transplants are the most common.

The majority of organ donations in the U.S. come from deceased donors who have made their wishes known by joining their state’s organ donation registry. But some organs can be donated from a living donor.

“Since we only need one kidney to perform the necessary metabolic functions, we can transplant kidneys from either a deceased or living donor,” said Mark Gravel, R.N., CPTC, director of TC Quality Improvement and Donation Initiatives Programs for the Transplant Center. “Living donations come from living donors who voluntarily donate an organ, such as a kidney – or part of an organ such as the liver – to an intended recipient. Combining these donation options helps to increase the number of kidney or liver transplants that can be done.” 

Teamwork, teamwork, teamwork

So how does a donor organ make its way to Michigan Medicine to help a patient in need?

It takes the hard work and collaboration of dozens of team members in what becomes, in the end, a logistical masterpiece.

“The Transplant Center is comprised of adult and pediatric programs and their multidisciplinary teams that support the entire continuum of care for our patients.  The teams include physicians, surgeons, nurses, nurse coordinators, medical assistants, physician assistants, social workers, dietitians, pharmacists, HLA lab, quality, administrators and more working in concert to make things happen,” Gravel said.

On top of that, the Transplant Center has a robust research component and even Health Information Technology & Services staff are committed specifically to the Transplant Center.

Putting the wheels in motion

The transplantation process begins months and possibly years before the day of a procedure.

First, a patient is referred to the Transplant Center as a potential recipient candidate. They then go through a rigorous process to determine whether they are medically suitable and would benefit from a transplant. If so, they are added to the national wait list registry.

“Once a deceased donor is identified, the national registry prioritizes patients for each organ separately based upon factors such as severity of illness, proximity to the donor and matching factors such as blood type,” said Chris Sonnenday, M.D., a liver transplant surgeon and U-M Health Transplant Center director. “We are notified of where on the list our patients are for each organ and our teams make a comprehensive assessment about whether that organ is appropriate for each individual recipient.”

The patient will then be immediately contacted to find out whether they are feeling healthy and don’t have a cold or other ailment that could prevent transplantation. “Then we ask them to grab their go-bag and come into the hospital,” Sonnenday said.

All the while, admissions works to find them a bed and a team is dispatched to procure the organ.

That’s where the logistics really get complicated.

If the donor organ is close by, the retrieval team may drive. But if it’s further away, Survival Flight helps them reach their destination.

“After arrival, our teams carry out the organ procurement procedure themselves at the destination facility,” Sonnenday said. “First we assess whether the organs are suitable for donation, including obtaining biopsies when necessary. We then contact our teams on the ground in Michigan who will begin the recipient operation.”

Once the procurement is completed, organ recovery specialists are tasked with preserving the organ during transportation. In the end, the timing is meticulously planned so that the organ can be immediately transplanted once reaching Michigan Medicine.

“It’s an incredible process that our talented and dedicated teams carry out hundreds of times every year,” Sonnenday said. 

Highly successful procedures — but more are needed

Transplant procedures are remarkably successful, with one-year survival rates greater than 90% across organ types and the vast majority of transplant recipients surviving two decades or more after transplantation. But despite that high rate of success, the need for donations continues to far outpace available organs, with more than 100,000 people on the current wait list.

“We can’t do transplants that benefit our patients without organ donation,” Gravel said. “That’s why it’s vital that those who wish to do so join a donor registry as soon as possible so your wishes are known in case of an emergency.

“Our aim is to take a tragic situation and turn some part of it into a positive,” Gravel added. “That’s what keeps us going every day.”

To learn more about organ donation and sign up for a donor registry, click here.


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