Triple transplant patients come together to encourage donor registration

Four triple transplant patients
Four of the UChicago Medicine patients who received triple organ transplants in 2019 (L to R): Neil Perry, Daru Smith, Sarah McPharlin and Apurva Patel

Four University of Chicago Medicine patients who received rare triple-organ transplants came together publicly for the first time to encourage people to register as organ and tissue donors, hoping to raise awareness about giving the gift of life during a holiday season focused on giving.

Sarah McPharlin, Daru Smith, Apurva Patel and Neil Perry – four of the six patients who received heart-liver-kidney transplants at the prominent academic medical center in the past year – were joined by members of their care team, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White and Gift of Hope CEO Kevin Cmunt during a Dec. 18 news conference.

Nationwide, organ transplantation is on pace to set a new record in 2019. Hospitals across the country have performed 36,284 transplants through mid-December, according to federal data. About 5% of cases are complex transplants involving at least two organs. An even smaller percentage involve three or more organs.

Currently more than 113,000 people are waiting for transplants; about 20 will die every day, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). Donated organs from one person can help as many as eight lives. However, multi-organ transplants, in addition to being a daunting surgical task, also require organs that are all procured from a single donor in order to prevent rejection.

“For me, organ donation is the beauty of life. It represents hope, faith and joy,” said Smith, 30, of Chicago, who choked up with emotion as he talked about his triple transplant. “It’s unexplainable not only what it can do for an individual, but for a family.”

Smith and 30-year-old McPharlin, from Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan, marked the one-year anniversary of their back-to-back triple organ transplants, which took place Dec. 19-21, 2019. Before their marathon surgeries, no hospital had performed more than two of the rare procedures in a year, much less within 27 hours. Their cases were only the 16th and 17th time that a heart-liver-kidney transplant had ever been performed.

Since McPharlin and Smith’s December 2018 surgeries, the Hyde Park-based health system has performed another four heart-liver-kidney transplants. Other patients include:

  • May 2019: Neil Perry, 55, from Louisville, Kentucky, now living in Munster, Indiana
  • June 2019: Apurva Patel, 45, from Washington, D.C., now living in Chicago
  • July 2019: Jerry McCullum, 54, from Springfield, Illinois

“I still have trouble believing that all of this happened,” said Patel. “Those considering organ donation can just look to us to see the transformational impact it can have on other people.”

The sixth heart-liver-kidney transplant was performed in November, however the patient’s name hasn’t been released. All six patients are continuing to recover and are doing well.

The first-ever heart-liver-kidney transplant was performed in 1989 at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. It has been performed 23 times – 10 of them at UChicago Medicine, including six in the last 12 months.

“The numbers don’t really reflect the human value of those transplants,” said heart surgeon Valluvan Jeevanandam, MD. “Transplant is truly a spiritual event. From the despair of the ultimate tragedy, there is rebirth and a new life.”

Triple-organ transplant patients, Sarah and Daru, high five each other

Making History

Both 29, Sarah and Daru were several rooms apart in the University of Chicago Medicine ICU. On an unexpected journey into the record books, they forged a unique friendship along the way.

Learn more about Daru and Sarah