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Lifesaving Kidney Transplant Program reaches 1,000th transplant milestone

April 25, 2018

When Lynn Baker first met transplant surgeon Dr. George Lipkowitz some 30 years ago, she asked him to see his license.

He thought she wanted to see his medical license.

“No, I want to see your driver’s license. You don’t look old enough to drive, let alone transplant a kidney in me,” she joked.

Dr. Lipkowitz was 33 at the time and had recently arrived at Baystate Medical Center to oversee the hospital’s new transplant program. That was back in 1988, and Baker was to become his 11th transplant patient at Baystate. Now, 30 years later, he and his transplant team have completed their 1,000th transplant.

The Average Wait Time for a Kidney is Five Years

Baker first learned about her kidney disease while undergoing a college physical. She was diagnosed with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS), a relatively common form of kidney disease where scarring inside the kidney prevents the adequate filtering of blood.

More than half of people with FSGS develop chronic kidney failure within ten years, something Baker was able to avoid until the birth of her second child.

“My kidneys started to fail during my pregnancy and I found myself on complete bed rest at Baystate Medical Center for three months waiting to deliver Ross, now 35. I call him my miracle baby. He was only 3 lbs. and 10 oz. when born and had to spend some time in the hospital’s continuing care nursery before going home,” said Baker.

Just after his birth in 1982, Baker began dialysis and was placed on the national organ transplant list waiting for a deceased donor.

The average wait time for a kidney, the most commonly transplanted organ, is five years. She waited three. But for her first kidney transplant, Baker had to travel to Boston since Baystate hadn’t begun its program yet.

The risk of FSGS occurring in the transplanted kidney ranges from 20-50%, with more than half of patients with chronic FSGS losing their transplanted kidney in five years. Just three years after her surgery, Baker’s transplanted kidney started to fail.

Accepting a kidney

“I was retaining fluid, feeling nauseous and not able to eat. When you have kidney disease you feel like you always have the flu,” Baker said.

This time around, the South Hadley woman didn’t have to wait very long for a kidney. Her sister, Risa Teall, stepped forward and donated her kidney.

“When I had my first transplant, I just couldn’t bring myself to take someone’s kidney. As time went on and I needed another transplant, someone said to me, ‘What would you do if a loved one needed a kidney?’ A light went on that I wouldn’t think twice,” said Baker. Her decision to accept her sister’s “gift of life” was the result of that revelation.

So, when her second transplanted kidney gave out in 2003, Baker “didn’t think twice” about accepting her loving husband’s kidney, which is still functioning some 15 years later.

An experienced surgeon

“I’ve become very friendly with George over the years,” said Baker about Dr. Lipkowitz, who has transplanted two of her three donated kidneys, and whom she credits with literally “saving her life” a number of times.

“George, of course, eventually won me over after meeting him. He is a brilliant surgeon who is not afraid to try new, cutting-edge procedures. I have complete trust in him,” said Baker, now 61, about the transplant program’s medical director.

While Baker thought Dr. Lipkowitz looked so young when she first met him, he wasn’t lacking in experience. He had been transplanting kidneys for several years at State University of New York – Downstate Medical Center, which at the time had the third largest kidney transplant program in the country.

Establishing the transplant program

“It was my dream to build my own transplant program. When the call came from Baystate offering me the opportunity, I knew this was going to be one of the last to open in the country, which was reaching its capacity for viable transplant programs,” said Dr. Lipkowitz about accepting the position.

From a staff of one, Dr. Lipkowitz has over the years established a respected transplant program at Baystate, the only one in our region, that includes five experienced surgeons and a team of nephrologists, transplant coordinators, dietitians, pharmacists, and social workers.

Asked what is means for the community to have a lifesaving transplant program in its own backyard, Dr. Lipkowitz said, “It means the world to those patients who need it.”

“The year before we began our program, only seven patients from the four western counties traveled to Boston for kidney transplants. In our first year at Baystate, we transplanted 35 patients. It’s not everyone who could or wanted to travel to Boston,” he said, attributing the large difference to local access.

Organ Donors Save Lives

Learn more about Baystate Medical Center’s transplant program and how to become a living donor.