University Hospital leads nation in living kidney donations for children

Transplant Institute leaders, transplant recipient said UH is number one for a couple different reasons

SAN ANTONIO - – University Health Transplant Institute now leads the nation in living donor kidney transplants for children.

“A living donor kidney transplant has a greater chance of functioning extremely well five years later, as compared to deceased. The outcomes are exceptional,” said renowned surgeon Dr. Francisco Cigarroa, who is the director of the UH Transplant Institute.

That’s why he and his team have made extreme efforts to ramp up the number of living donors, to help local children with kidney failure.

About a year ago, 14-year-old Gwyn Deleon started feeling sick.

“Blood pressure was super high and my oxygen was low. They said ‘go to the hospital right now.’ They did a blood test for organ function and immediately said it was my kidneys,” Gwyn said.

She was in kidney failure and went immediately on dialysis.

“The chemo dialysis only ran for 3 or 4 hours, and the peritoneal dialysis ran for 8 hours. So I was always on a schedule and I couldn’t leave and couldn’t hang out with friends. And the renal diet is a strict diet, so I couldn’t have a pizza party with my friends or go out to eat with them,” Gwyn said.

“It was hard to process. They knew she would be needing a kidney transplant,” said Gwyn’s father Jeremy Deleon.

Seven months into dialysis they joined University Health’s Champion for Life Program, which matches patients with a “champion” who is trained to help find them a living kidney donor.

“If you require a kidney transplant and we say, ‘You need to find a donor without any support from anybody else,’ that’s kind of an awkward conversation to have with a family member or friend,” Cigarroa said.

When the program launched in 2021, they brought a new member to the team.

“We hired a social media expert, so we wanted someone who could really train a champion. That person could be a family member. It could be the recipient themselves,” said Dr. Jennifer Milton, who is the Chief Administrator for the Transplant Institute.

“They’re trained how to tell the story. Sometimes telling the story means telling it the right way. We encourage our champions to, to say things like, ‘It doesn’t matter what blood type you are, it doesn’t matter what your size is.’ Just get people to just contact us. Don’t try to vet donors themselves. They just go to the website and register to be a donor,” Milton said.

Gwyn and her family were amazed by the results.

“From living in a small town, word gets out really fast,” Gwyn said.

Her hometown of Devine rallied around Gwyn, and not just with food deliveries, and loving support.

More than 100 people in the small community registered to be on the living donor list.

Gwyn’s biological mother found out about the need, learned she was a match and donated her kidney.

Gwyn finally had a successful transplant on November 17.

“I was feeling so happy that I cried,” Gwyn said. “I can breathe!”

Gwyn wasn’t the only success story at University Health in 2022.

Closing out the year, the team had performed more pediatric kidney transplants with organs from living donors, than any other transplant program in the country.

“Just under 60 percent of all of the pediatric transplants we did were living donor,” Milton said.

That brings Gwyn joy, considering she met so many of those patients while in treatment.

“When I was on dialysis I was the oldest one there and I saw these kids on this machine like me. Some weren’t even in school yet,” she said.

Cigarroa said part of the reason for their success has to do with culture: the culture of energetic compassion within the University Health System, and the giving culture of San Antonio and South Texas.

“Here in San Antonio and in South Texas, we are truly blessed because of the closeness that we have. If I told them ‘thank you’ a thousand times it would just never be enough,” Jeremy said.

Milton said they’re proud of their accomplishments, but they’re not stopping there.

“We’re putting the show on the road. We presented to Grand Rounds. We presented to other transplant programs at national conferences. We want to tell other transplant centers a better way to do it,” she said.

Cigarroa said there are many programs across the country coming to his team, asking how they’re finding so much success.

“Public education is so important in this process. If you can actually educate them and really let them understand what the donation process is like, a lot of people start stepping up,” he said.

The more living donors that step up, the more lives are saved, just like Gwyn.

“I encourage people who can, to donate because I’m thankful for mine,” Gwyn said.

If you’d like to learn more about becoming a living donor, register by calling 210-567-5777 or head to the UH Transplant Institute website.

About the Authors:

Courtney Friedman anchors KSAT’s weekend evening shows and reports during the week. Her ongoing Loving in Fear series confronts Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She joined KSAT in 2014 and is proud to call the SA and South Texas community home. She came to San Antonio from KYTX CBS 19 in Tyler, where she also anchored & reported.

William Caldera has been at KSAT since 2003. He covers a wide range of stories including breaking news, weather, general assignments and sports.