News & Events

When A Diseased Kidney Can Save A Life

From L to R: Transplant Pharmacist Dan Migliozzi; Transplant Surgeon Charles Strom, MD; Robert Robertson; Associate Chief of the Division of Nephrology Ronald Perrone, MD; Director of Transplant Service Melissa Parente; Transplant Coordinator Brian Bergeron

Tufts MC Transplants Hepatitis C Kidney In Patient With Same Illness 

Robert Robertson, 57, wasn’t feeling well. It was back in 2011, and the Virginia native and New Bedford resident was uncharacteristically tired and weak. Attributing his symptoms to the flu, Robertson didn’t pay them any heed. But one day, while on his way to work, his legs suddenly gave out and he collapsed. Robertson was rushed to the hospital, where he was shocked to learn that his chronic high blood pressure had caused both his kidneys to fail. He was just as surprised to receive another startling piece of news, completely unrelated to his kidney disease: he had Hepatitis C. 

“There’s no way to know for sure, but I probably got the virus from a contaminated tattoo needle when I was in Job Corps in Utah in 1979,” said Robertson. “It’s been in my body for close to 40 years, so I’m very lucky that I never had any symptoms.” 

An infectious disease that attacks the liver and can lead to cirrhosis or cancer, Hepatitis C is transmitted through contact with contaminated blood. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 3.9 million Americans are currently living with chronic Hepatitis C, although many, like Robertson, are symptom-free. 

With his kidneys no longer functioning properly, Robertson was forced to go on dialysis – four-hour sessions, three times per week – while awaiting a kidney transplant. But with more than 100,000 people on the national kidney transplant list, the average wait is very long, ranging from four-to-10 years, and sometimes even more. 

A new strategy 

By early October, 2016, Robertson had been on dialysis for nearly six years and was desperately seeking alternative options, when he met with a Transplant Surgeon and Transplant Nephrologist Nitender Goyal, MD. His team offered a new idea – add Robertson’s name to a special transplant list, designed to match Hepatitis C patients with Hepatitis C infected kidneys. A Hepatitis C kidney transplant had never been done before at Tufts MC, but Robertson was amenable to the plan and the team felt that it was worth a try. 

“The wait on the kidney transplant list can take eight years, 10 years or more--people die while waiting for a kidney to become available,” said his surgeon. “By listing Robert for a Hepatitis C kidney, we were optimistic that he would get a new kidney within one year.” 

Then, less than two weeks later, Robertson had just finished up his dialysis for the day and was walking along the Harbor Walk in New Bedford when his phone rang. It was Tufts MC. 

“If you could have anything in life, what would it be?” he asked. 

“I would want a new kidney,” Robertson replied. 

“Well, I have some good news –we have a new kidney for you!” said his surgeon. 

A “Brand New Person” 

Robertson came to Tufts MC that same night and underwent a four-hour transplant surgery the following morning. The new kidney began working almost immediately and Robertson was discharged from the hospital just three days later--faster than any other kidney transplant patient ever at Tufts MC. 

“This kidney was better than 90 percent of donor kidneys because of the young age and good health of the donor,” said his surgeon. “I’ve rarely seen such a rapid improvement in a patient before. His kidney function is now close to perfect – his renal failure is cured.” 

“I feel like a brand new person,” said Robertson. “I can eat and drink normally, I have the energy to play ball with my son and I’m off dialysis. It really is amazing!”  

“If not for this opportunity, it’s likely that Robert would still be waiting for a new kidney. Instead, he has his life back and is feeling the best he has in years,” said his surgeon. “I hope this practice continues to become the standard of care for patients with Hepatitis C who need kidney transplants, so these precious organs are used, not wasted.”  

The Final Step 

Now that his kidney function has been restored, the final step for Robertson is to address his Hepatitis C. In just the past two years, new oral medications have become available that effectively cure the disease. Robertson began seeing a hepatologist at Tufts MC in December 2016 to begin treatment. And he’s heading into the New Year a very happy and thankful man. 

“My doctors and surgeons have been like a second family to me,” said Robertson. “Everyone treated me with 100 percent respect, provided encouragement and kept me from giving up on more than one occasion. For years, they fueled my hope for a new kidney and it finally happened for me.”

Watch the WCVB-5 story on the first-ever Hepatitis C kidney transplant at Tufts MC. 

The above content is provided for educational purposes by Tufts Medical Center. It is free for educational use. For information about your own health, contact your physician.