Pioneer kidney donor dies at 79

    The man credited with paving the way for live kidney donations passed away this week at the age of 79. In the half century since he gave up one of his kidneys, transplant procedures have become safer and less invasive.

    Fifty-six years after Ronald Lee Herrick gave a kidney to his twin brother, more than 450,000 transplants have taken place in the United States.

    Back in 1954, doctors said it was unethical to perform an elective surgery on a healthy person. But after the successful transplant, Herrick went on to live a healthy life and the medical world began changing its mind.

    Howard Nathan, with the Gift of Life Donor Program based in Philadelphia, said the process Herrick lived and thrived through is far different from today’s procedures.

    “People are often out of the hospital within two or three days and often back to work within a week or two after donating a kidney,” he said. “Versus 50 years ago where someone had major surgery, might have had a rib taken out and they might have been laid up for three or four months.”

    Nathan says the kidney is the most needed — and the most donated — organ. About 95 percent of all procedures today are successful.

    Radi Zaki,  with Albert Einstein’s Center for Liver Disease and Transplantation, said that before the mid-1990s the living donor’s recovery from surgery was worse than the recipient’s. He admires the risks donors take. “These things don’t happen unless other people want to help,” he said. “Either in a living situation, a living donation or a donation after someone has died. It’s a field in medicine that is completely depending on the altruism of others.”

    Herrick donated to his twin brother, keeping him alive for eight more years. Herrick passed away in a hospital in Maine after complications from heart surgery. About six-thousand people receive transplants from living donors every year in the U.S.

    Nathan, with Gift of Life, had the opportunity to met Herrick and his family. He said he was just your average guy who led a simple life. To so many others, he means a lot.

    “Ronald’s gift of life more than 50 years ago changed not only the life of his brother and his family, but the entire world,” he said. “His willingness to say yes to give a kidney, it opened up the world of transplantation from what was really an experiment, a real trial, to frankly a pretty common surgery.”

    About 6,000 people receive transplants from living donors every year in the U.S. Nathan says the kidney is the most needed — and the most donated — organ. About 95 percent of all procedures today are successful.

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