Northwestern Medicine performs its 1st awake kidney transplant procedure in under 2 hours

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Wednesday, June 26, 2024
Kidney donor, recipient reunite
A Northwestern kidney donor and recipient reunited Monday after a successful awake procedure.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- A Chicago man was the first patient at Northwestern Medicine to receive a kidney transplant that he was awake for.

John Nicholas, 28, had been experiencing kidney issues for over a decade, since being diagnosed with Crohn's Disease. Lab work showed he had inflammation in his kidneys, but the root of the issue was never found.

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Nicholas avoided dialysis, and managed his disease with medication. After moving to Chicago in 2022, he found his kidney was declining, and he needed a transplant.

However, Nicholas had some trouble finding a kidney donor. His mom had initially planned to donate her kidney, but was unable to after her breast cancer diagnosis.

Nicholas turned to his childhood friend, Pat Wise, sharing that his doctors told him it was time to look for a donor.

"I stared at my phone and without hesitating, filled out the form that night," Wise said. "John is a good friend. He needed a kidney, and I had an extra one. I had to at least explore the potential of being his donor."

Wise found out he was a match and traveled to Chicago, where surgeons removed one of his kidneys to transplant it to Nicholas.

"Give an incredible gift to a friend is always a good feeling, and in some way contributing to this incredible medical advancement is icing on the cake," Wise said.

On May 24, Dr. Satish Nadig, a transplant surgeon at Northwestern Medicine; Dr. Vinayak Rohan, a transplant surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital; and Dr. Vicente Garcia Tomas, an anesthesiologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, performed the procedure in under two hours.

Nicholas received anesthesia similar to those who undergo cesarean sections.

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"Doing anesthesia for the awake kidney transplant was easier than many C-sections," Tomas said. "For John's case, we placed a spinal anesthesia shot in the operating room with a little bit of sedation for comfort. It was incredibly simple and uneventful, but allowed John to be awake for the procedure, improving the patient experience. Not only can awake kidney transplantation help patients who have risks or phobias to general anesthesia, but it can help shorten their hospital stay so they can recover more comfortably at home."

Although Nicholas didn't exhibit any risks or phobias to general anesthesia, he was a great candidate due to his age, limited risk factors and eagerness to participate in a historical procedure for Northwestern Medicine.

"It was a pretty cool experience to know what was happening in real time and be aware of the magnitude of what they were doing," Nicholas said. "At one point during surgery, I recall asking, 'should I be expecting the spinal anesthesia to kick in?' They had already been doing a lot of work and I had been completely oblivious to that fact. Truly, no sensation whatsoever. I had been given some sedation for my own comfort, but I was still aware of what they were doing. Especially when they called out my name and told me about certain milestones they had reached."

The surgery was successful, and doctors discharged Nicholas the following day.

The typical hospitalization is two to three days for patients undergoing a kidney transplant at Northwestern Medicine.

Northwestern Medicine is looking to establish the AWAKE program, or Accelerated Surgery Without General Anesthesia in Kidney Transplantation, for patients who want the operation, can't have or are at a high risk of general anesthesia, or could benefit from it.

"It really opens up a whole new door and is another tool in our toolbelt for the field of transplantation," Nadig said. "If you think of what kidney transplant is, taking an organ, saving somebody's life, now, making it an overnight stay, 24 hours in the hospital, remarkable, to mitigate the risks with invasive procedures in the hospital."

Nicholas and his team of doctors spoke about the rare procedure Monday.

"I just want to express how truly powerful this experience was, fact that it was truly life changing," Nicholas said. "We've always said to each other, ride-or-die friends with each other for life. Actually having a bona fide example, we got each other's back. It meant the world to me,"

More information about Northwestern's Medicine's kidney transplant program can be found here

Nicholas and Nadig joined ABC7 Chicago Wednesday to talk more about it.

Northwestern's 1st awake kidney transplant recipient is speaking out on the experience.