COLUMBIA — Ethan Russell, 8, could not eat vanilla wafers before his kidney transplant — the phosphorous content was too high for his renal system to break down.
But a month after he received a kidney from his mother, Nancy, Ethan munched heartily on the wafers, washing them down with juice before a news conference Wednesday at the hospital, marking University Hospital's 1,000th kidney transplant.
Mark Wakefield, director of the renal transplant program, described the transplant as “a significant accomplishment in University Hospital’s history.”
Eighteen months ago, when the Russell family received the diagnosis that Ethan, who is autistic, had a rare and progressive kidney disease, the decision to go through with the operation was a quick one, Emmett Russell, Ethan’s father, said.
“Once I figured out that I could stay working and (Nancy) could donate the kidney, we decided to go for it,” he said.
Surgeons Stephen Weinstein, and Venkataraman Ramachandran, along with chief residents Julie Riley and Elizabeth Malm-Buatsi., performed the living-donor transplant. They surgically removed one of Nancy’s kidneys and transplanted it to Ethan.
Nancy said she was excited when she discovered her kidney was a match for Ethan.
“It’s just a kidney,” she said. “We have extras.”
Emmett, 35, is a self-employed contractor. Nancy, 40, works part-time as a server in Columbia and takes classes at Columbia College. They also have a 10-year-old daughter Emma, whom Emmett described as “a good big sister.”
“We don’t know what we’d do without her,” he said.
Although Ethan’s original diagnosis came when the Russells lived in Humboldt, Iowa, the family now lives in Columbia. Nancy said they made the move because they were impressed with the programs for students with autism in the Columbia public schools.
The Russells are pleased with the care provided by University Hospital, which scheduled all the family's appointments. Nancy said this relieved a tremendous burden of stress.
“They’ve been great,” she added. “We’ve had great care here. We wouldn’t go anywhere else for this.”
The hospital’s first kidney transplant was performed in 1972 by Wakefield’s self-described mentor, Gilbert Ross, professor emeritus of surgery at the MU School of Medicine. Since then, medical advances have lowered the rate of “acute rejection” on transplants from around 50 percent to a current national average of 14 percent to 15 percent. The acute rejection percentage for kidney transplants is even lower at University Hospital.
“Our annual acute rejection rate is less than 5 percent in our program,” said Ramesh Khanna, director of the division of nephrology at University Hospital.
The operating team is optimistic that Ethan’s kidney will be fully functional for 30 years — perhaps longer with advancements in modern medicine. Wakefield also said children see dramatic benefits from living-donor transplants.
“He’s going to have the best possible kidney from his mother,” he said.
Ethan remains optimistic as well,his father said.
“He’s a little camera shy,” Emmett said. “But once you get to know him, you see he’s got a great attitude and he smiles a lot. He’s a pro at it.”