Son gives dad gift of life for Christmas

Shortly before Christmas, a critically ill patient with end-stage renal disease arrived at SUNY Downstate Medical Center hoping for a miracle. He got his wish when surgeons at University Hospital of Brooklyn gave him a healthy new kidney, donated by a son he had not seen in years. It was the 4,000th organ transplant performed at SUNY Downstate, home to the only transplant service in Brooklyn and one of the largest in New York State. This milestone in the history of Downstate’s Transplant Program’s was also a transforming experience for the patient and his entire family.

Alvaro Fraser looks remarkably fit for a 69-year-old who has just had major surgery. The new kidney is working well he says, and he feels “revitalized and rejuvenated, like I have a whole new life ahead of me.” And so he does, reunited with children and grandchildren—nine of them. After his divorce and move to Guyana, he mostly lost touch with all but one of his children. Years later, when he developed renal failure and needed a new kidney, Stanford, the son he had not seen in eight years, heard about it and immediately offered one of his. His son’s selfless devotion still amazes Mr. Fraser. “Stan’s just phenomenal,” he says. “I can’t find words to thank him enough.”

The family agreed that the surgery should be performed at Downstate, where Stanford was born 35 years ago, when the family lived in the New Lots area. However, Fraser feared that Stanford might not be a suitable donor. “I inherited diabetes from my father, who died from it, and hypertension from my mother,” he explains, “so I might have passed them on to my son.” But doctors found Stanford to be in perfect health. “Your son is a wonder,” their surgeon, Dr. Nabil Sumrani, said. From then on everything went like clockwork.

Fraser’s story illustrates why the Transplant Program at SUNY Downstate is such an important resource for Brooklyn, especially its minority residents, who bear a disproportionate share of kidney disease. Of the 662 people currently on the waiting list at Downstate to receive a new kidney, 502 are African- or Caribbean-American. Fortunately, there’s no need for borough residents to spend extra time and expense seeking treatment elsewhere when one of the best programs is located in their own community. The staff knows the special needs of the community and goes the extra mile to meet them.

It is also one of the premier centers performing laparoscopic donor nephrectomies. Using this technique, surgeons are able to remove a living donor’s kidney by making only a small incision. Not only are there less post-operative pain and scarring, but the donor is usually discharged from the hospital one or two days after surgery. In the case of Fraser’s son, Stanford was able to have his work-up done in one day, the surgery the next, and return to his home in North Carolina two days later.

“The fact that donors can more quickly return to their families and jobs makes it easier to persuade a family member or friend to donate,” says Dr. Dale Distant, chief of the Transplant Division at Downstate. In light of the serious organ shortage, which has significantly increased the waiting period for transplantation, he hopes that such surgical innovations will encourage greater donation. Dr. Distant, who serves as chairman of the New York Organ Donor Network, is one of only 40 African-American transplant surgeons and physicians in the nation.

Known for it innovation and surgical excellence, Downstate’s Transplant Program has a proud history of “firsts.” Established in 1972 by Dr. Samuel L. Kountz, the nation’s first African-American transplant surgeon, it became one of the largest and finest programs in the country. Building on the strength of Downstate’s well-known dialysis program, Dr. Kountz sought to make transplantation services available to all patients with end-stage kidney disease—including minorities who, until that time, had been largely excluded. If he were alive today, he would be delighted to know that the program he introduced has already saved 4,000 lives.

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