Stories of heart wrenching loss turned into heartwarming renewed life through organ donation and transplantation are in the news on a regular basis, and those are the stories we at LifeLink share most often. Everyone wants to cry with the family who lost a loved one, but gave the gift of life to others, or rejoice with the mother who will see her children grow up thanks to a transplant, or even stand in awe of the surgeons who keep pace with the fast track world of organ donation and transplantation. Rarely recognized are the behind the scenes superheroes who leave their capes at home in favor of scrubs, and whose superpowers are looking through a microscope at little slides of cells and seeing a successful transplant, or potential pitfalls, based on the possible match of an organ donor to a patient awaiting an organ transplant.
Jean Davis, LifeLink COO, Dr. Sandra Resto-Ruiz, Associate Director of LifeLink Transplantaiton Immunology Laboratory, Mike Robinson, heart transplant recipient, Dennis Heinrichs, LifeLink CEO and Dr. Mayra Lopez-Cepero, Director of the lab, after a recognition event to celebrate saving more than 10,000 lives through the important work of matching donors to recipients.
Nestled in LifeLink’s Tampa-based headquarters building is a team of quiet, unassuming do-gooders who make up the staff of one of LifeLink Foundations five divisions, LifeLink Transplantation Immunology Laboratory. Overseen by Dr. Mayra Lopez-Cepero, an expert in microbiology and Immunology with degrees ranging from her bachelors in biology and chemistry obtained in her native Puerto Rico to her Ph.D. from University of South Florida College of Medicine in Medical Microbiology and Immunology, a team of 26 dedicated professionals have devoted their life’s work to match-making. In other words, the immunology laboratory connects deceased and living donors with potential transplant recipients through clinical and scientific tests related to ABO blood grouping, infectious disease testing, tissue typing, transplant antibody detection and identification, cross matching and research on a 24-hour daily basis.
Just recently, LifeLink Transplantation Immunology Laboratory reached a major milestone, 10,000 lives saved. 10,000 transplant patients who lived to see the birth of a child or grandchild, graduations, birthdays, sunrises and sunsets, and who made contributions to their families, friends and communities thanks to the gift of life from an organ donor….and the expertise and quiet perseverance of unassuming superheroes in scrubs who find themselves looking through the microscope, running tests and making important decisions and discoveries in the lab at LifeLink.
Jennifer McKie, histocompatibility tech, has dedicated her career to saving lives through transplantation. She has been with LifeLink more than 16 years.
What does that even mean? A transplanted organ, or any other foreign material placed into one’s body, like a splinter or bug bite has the potential, and even the likelihood, to cause problems. The organ recipient’s body sees the transplant as dangerous, and tries to fight it, which ultimately can cause the organ to fail and negate the purpose behind a transplant in the first place. LifeLink Transplantation Immunology Laboratory studies how the genetic makeup of one person, a donor, will interact with that of another, a patient in need of a transplant. This is the difference between life and death, success and failure for transplant patients. The better the match, the better the outcome – a good match means an easier road to recovery, less need for medicines that equal side effects and a potentially longer, and more active life to come. Also, the labs tests for communicable diseases that a donor may pass to a recipient, they monitor patients post-transplant to make sure their bodies are reacting well to their transplanted organs and they do research to change and improve health for the patients of today, and those of tomorrow, who will ultimately benefit from better immunosuppression protocols.
Dr. Lopez-Cepero, prefers to pass on the glory of her important work, and focus on what she considers a gift for herself and her staff, “It’s a privilege to perform the work that we do on behalf of organ donors and potential transplant recipients. I’m so pleased and proud of the staff that passionately pursues the LifeLink® mission and thankful to the organ donor who generously provided the gift of life.”
Florida transplant centers served by the laboratory include Tampa General Hospital, All Children’s Hospital, Gulf Coast Medical Center in Ft. Myers, Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Weston, Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood, Memorial Regional in Broward County and the soon to open transplant program at Large Medical Center in Largo.
More than 1,000 patients and live donors are tested each year, along with approximately 300 deceased organ donors, resulting in more than one organ transplant a day within the 13 transplant programs served by the LifeLink Transplantation Immunology Laboratory.
As of 2015, more than 10,000 patients lived to make memories with family and friends, experience milestones and contribute to their communities thanks to the expertise and tireless work of LifeLink Transplantation Immunology Laboratory.