It was early 1974 and Sarah Cornelius couldn’t keep anything in her stomach. Even a little bit of lettuce was enough to make her sick.
The then 46-year-old mother of five decided to see her family doctor who sent her to a specialist who diagnosed her with polycystic kidney disease. Sarah needed to be on dialysis because the genetic disorder had destroyed her kidneys.
When the first attempt to establish a fistula – surgically created access to a vein and artery – in her left arm to enable dialysis quickly failed, Sarah was transferred to Jefferson and came under the care of legendary Jefferson nephrologist James F. Burke, Jr., MD.
After an attempt to establish a fistula in her right arm also failed, Dr. Burke suggested a kidney transplant. It was still the early days of transplantation before the advent of modern antirejection medications.
“When she got this kidney, transplantation was really unusual,” explains nephrologist George Francos, MD, medical director of Jefferson’s Kidney Transplant Program and one of the physicians who has cared for Sarah over the years. “You had to be ‘adventurous’ to undergo a transplant at the time, unless there were no other options.”
Sarah, however, wanted to go ahead with the transplant and her son – a donor match who didn’t have the genetic condition that had destroyed his mother’s kidneys – was willing to donate one of his healthy kidneys.
On April 11, 1974, Sarah underwent a living donor kidney transplant at Jefferson.
Hers was the first kidney transplant at the Hospital. And for that reason alone, Sarah’s transplant was noteworthy. But given that transplanted kidneys – even living donor organs – tend to last around 20 years, the fact that Sarah and her donor kidney are still going strong 40 years later is remarkable.
“As we embark on an exciting future at Jefferson by transforming healthcare delivery, education and research, we are building on a nearly 200-year history of achievement,” says Stephen Klasko, MD, MBA, Jefferson’s president and CEO. “Sarah Cornelius’ amazing story shines a light on Jefferson’s illustrious past and limitless future.”
Sarah’s primary care physician, geriatrician Christine A. Arenson, MD says “she’s doing pretty dang good for 86, let alone 86 with a 40-year-old kidney.”
Dr. Arenson, interim chair of Jefferson’s Department of Family and Community Medicine, adds, “Sarah Cornelius is fiercely independent, in a very good way. It’s a joy to see her and a privilege to have a little part in keeping her going, though, truth be told she does most of it herself.”
Many factors, Dr. Arenson explains, play a role in people like Sarah aging well, and in this particular case doing so with a transplanted kidney. Those include your personality and your ability to overcome adversity.
Dr. Francos explains that because Sarah’s problems were the result of a genetic disorder, not diabetes or high blood pressure – the most common causes of kidney failure today – she did not have the additional burden of other chronic illnesses on her new organ.
In addition, Dr. Francos notes that recipients of living donor kidneys tend to fair better.
“I have very unusual and challenging problems up to and including my transplant,” recalls Sarah. “But I’m still here. I’m the original and I’ve lasted 40 years.”
National Donate Life Month
April is National Donate Life Month and a great time to remember the importance of registering as an organ donor.
In Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware 12,155 people are waiting for a lifesaving organ transplant, including 10,047 awaiting new kidneys. Together the three states account for 10 percent of those awaiting transplants nationally.
“I always say there is no greater gift that you can give than a kidney,” says Dr. Francos. “It changes the recipients’ lives. Their quality of life is so much better. Donors are my heroes.”