Saint Mary's Kidney Transplants Hit Record

March 31, 2008
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Some 83 adults received new kidneys at Saint Mary’s Health Care in 2007, more than any previous year.

Now in its 35th year, the Grand Rapids program is the state’s third busiest, following the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor and Henry Ford Health System in Detroit.

“It’s actually bigger than a number of university programs around the country,” said Dr. Mark Boelkins, medical director of the kidney transplantation program at Saint Mary’s and a nephrologist with Renal Associates of West Michigan.

Dramatic strides have been made over the years. For example, Boelkins said, 20 years ago the average length of stay in the hospital after a kidney transplant was two weeks. Today, 80 percent of patients who receive donations from living donors are discharged in four days; for those receiving donations from deceased donors, one week.

Boelkins, who cares for patients before and after transplant surgery, said anti-rejection drugs have improved. They’ve also allowed for a wider range of donors.

“Expanded criteria donors” usually are older than standard deceased donors. “They tend not to work as well or last as long,” Boelkins said. But the waiting list for donated kidneys grows ever longer, and patients willing to accept an older kidney may get one sooner, he said. Usually those patients are older themselves, he added.

There also are more living donors. “It used to be the majority were going to be deceased donors. That potential really has kind of leveled off,” he said.

At Saint Mary’s, where the kidney transplant program serves all of West Michigan and into northern Indiana, about half of kidneys come from live donors, Boelkins said, and about half of those come from relatives.

“The real goal is to try to figure out a way to trick the immune system to think the new organ is similar to the recipient and get rid of anti-rejection medications,” he said. “They’re expensive, and they do have the potential for side effects.

“Previously the focus was on prevention of acute rejection. I think with the new medication combinations, the problems with acute rejection become less of a focus. Now the focus is more on medications that have less side effects, less problems with cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes.”

More than 2,500 people in the state are in need of kidney donations, according to National Kidney Foundation of Michigan Communications Manager Marcie M. Gerlach. In 2007, there were 881 kidney transplants in eight transplant centers, she said.

— Elizabeth Slowik

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