More than 30 years ago, a small group of innovators made a commitment to save lives through organ and tissue donation. Dr. Dana Shires, Jr., Dr. Alejandro DeQuesada, Dr. Lawrence Kahana, Dr. William LeFor, Dr. John Ackermann, Dr. Samuel Weinstein, and later joined by Dr. John Whelchel, and Dr. Luis Morales – Otero, combined their wisdom and passion to stoke the bright fire of success that LifeLink has become.
In 1970, donation and transplantation were in their infancy and had recently begun to locally emerge onto the scene. By 1973 and 1975 respectively, recovery efforts had begun in Tampa, Florida and in Georgia. In 1982, the Florida West Coast Organ Procurement Foundation was established to serve west Florida – which would later be known as LifeLink of Florida. With steady growth, by 1987 LifeLink of Georgia was established and combined with LifeLink of Florida formed LifeLink Foundation, Inc. LifeLink of Puerto Rico followed in 1994. In 1985, Florida Regional Bone and Tissue Bank began operations in Tampa, which would later become the LifeLink Tissue Bank. The tissue bank is now one of the largest non-profit tissue banks in the southeastern United States. In 2005, the LifeLink Transplantation Immunology Laboratory testing resulted in at least one lifesaving transplant a day at the nine programs it served. The Immunology Laboratory has since expanded to partner with transplant programs across Florida and in 2020 provided 356 tests for deceased donors, a 17% increase from the previous year.
What was once a small, non-profit organization with big dreams and just a few employees, became an organization that has five divisions, with more than 500 full- and part-time staff serving in west-central Florida, Georgia and Puerto Rico.
Each year, on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, LifeLink leadership and staff observe Founder’s Day as we remember the vision of Dr. Shires and the entire founding team. Because of their innovative spirits and inspired minds, our organization has helped save, heal, and improve thousands of lives.
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Dr. Dana L. Shires, Jr. was born in Coral Gables, Florida. His family moved quite a bit in Dana’s youth…from Georgia to Virginia back to Florida, settling in Jacksonville where he graduated high school. He joined the Marine Corps and served on a carrier off the coast of Korea. Once a Marine, always a Marine, but after three years in the service, he returned to Florida and attended the University of Florida. He remained at UF for medical school, residency, and a fellowship. In 1966, along with Dr. William Pfaff, Dr. Shires participated in the first kidney transplant in the State of Florida. It was during this time that he also formed a historical collaboration with Drs. Cade, Free, and de Quesada that eventually produced the world’s first sports drink – Gatorade. Gatorade played a part in Dr. Shires’ migration North to the University of Indiana, where he established a notable transplant effort. He returned to Florida in 1973 at the urging of his former University of Indiana boss, Dr. Roy Behnke, the founding chair of the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of South Florida. Dr. Shires in return recruited Drs. LeFor, Ackermann, and de Quesada to initiate a transplant program in Tampa. Within a year the first successful kidney transplant in Tampa occurred at the VA hospital, and soon after Tampa General Hospital began its kidney transplant program in 1974. In 1982, he and the Founding Fathers committed time, effort, and their own financial resources to begin the LifeLink precursor – Florida West Coast Organ Procurement.
Dr. Lawrence Kahana attended Hillsborough High School and met his future wife there. His higher education started in Gainesville and continued at such notable institutions as Harvard, Washington University, and University of Virginia. It was at UVA that he discovered the field of endocrinology after a turn of fate left the fellow position vacant. After two years in Virginia, he was drafted and assumed the post of Senior Assistant Surgeon in the United States Coast Guard. After his time in the USCG, he finished his medical training at Duke as a post-doc in endocrinology. In 1959, Dr. Kahana returned to Tampa and established a private practice in internal medicine and endocrinology. Dr. Kahana, along with his medical colleagues, piloted the first dialysis machine, the Kolff Artificial Kidney, and Dr. Kahana became the first physician in Tampa Bay to dialyze a patient to treat acute renal failure. By 1970, Dr. Kahana knew it was time to tackle transplantation as the next step in the care of his dialysis patients. His initial efforts did not meet with success, and this brought him to the University of Indiana to learn from their successful transplant program. It was there that Dr. Kahana and Dr. Shires began their enduring friendship as well as partnership in the field of organ donation and transplantation. We all owe Dr. Kahana a huge thanks in recruiting Dr. Shires to Tampa and thus launching Tampa’s renowned transplant program. Dr. Kahana continued his private practice until his death in 2017 at the age of 89.
Dr. William LeFor was born and raised in Blue Earth, Minnesota – a small town numbering less than 4,000 people in 1940. His father was a pharmacist and may have sparked young Bill’s initial interest in both science and medicine. He attended college for a short time in St. Paul before volunteering for the Navy and traveling to Key West, New York and Bermuda. In 1962, after serving four years in the Navy and returning to Minnesota, he met his wife, Carole. He also returned to the academic world, obtaining his bachelor’s degree in science at Mankato State College (currently MSU Mankato) and a master’s and Ph.D. in immunology at Indiana University. It was at University of Indiana he first met Dr. Dana Shires and began their collaboration in transplantation. Dr. LeFor was recruited to Tampa and the VA Hospital by Dr. Shires to join the transplant team in 1972. When the VA closed its transplant program, Dr. LeFor and his lab shifted to Tampa General Hospital and University of South Florida’s Department of Medicine in 1975. The transplant program struggled, and it was clear to Dr. LeFor and the LifeLink Founding Fathers that more needed to be done if transplantation were to become a successful therapy for patients in Tampa. And in 1982, they started the Florida West Coast Organ Procurement, known today as LifeLink Foundation, Inc. Dr. LeFor directed the LifeLink Transplantation Immunology Laboratory efforts until his retirement in 2009… spanning four decades and over 7,000 transplants in Tampa Bay.
Dr. John Ackermann was born near Cape Town, South Africa. His father was a hospital administrator and thus may have planted the first seeds of what would become Dr. Ackermann’s life-long passion for sick people. During his childhood he met Dr. Christian Barnard, a name known by all in the field of transplantation. Dr. Ackermann later worked with Dr. Barnard during the first human-to-human heart transplant. He also worked with Dr. Donald Ross, a pioneer in cardiac surgery and the surgeon who performed the first heart transplant in the United Kingdom. After spending two years at Vanderbilt performing 100+ kidney transplants, a twist of fate took him to Michigan State University in Lansing, Michigan. A chance meeting with another LifeLink Founding Father - Dr. Dana L. Shires - paved the way for Dr. Ackermann’s migration to the Sunshine State. Dr. Ackermann moved to Tampa in 1972 and opened the only private practice transplant program in the nation. He would soon become known as the Iron Man, performing organ recoveries as well as transplanting both kidneys and livers. Between 1974 and 1992, he transplanted over 1,200 kidneys. Dr. Ackermann would tell you today that the success of the transplant program is about the right people and the right ideals… it is believed that all who ever met Dr. Ackermann would state it also had a lot to do with Dr. Ackermann’s affection and trust for the transplant team, the patients, and the donors who gave the Gift of Life.
Dr. Alexander de Quesada, known as “Alex” to his colleagues and friends was a key member of the nephrology team that played a central role in the establishment of LifeLink in 1982. He has an amazing personal history. His father was a prominent member and landowner in Cuba, and his great-great grandfather was the Chief Justice of the Cuban Supreme Court. Dr. de Quesada chose medicine rather than law, earning his medical degree from the University of Havana Medical School. Fidel Castro’s rise to power and its communistic tenets caused Dr. de Quesada to leave Cuba with only $5 in his pocket. After several stops at various American hospitals, he landed at the University of Florida, where he joined Dr. Shires and became one of the creators of Gatorade. While his work on Gatorade constituted a major life moment, Dr. de Quesada continued his work in nephrology. He followed his good friend, Dr. Shires, to Indiana University, where they developed a solid renal transplant program. Their path eventually led them to Tampa, where they joined the faculty of the newly established medical school at the University of South Florida. Alex de Quesada remained an engaged member of the Gatorade leadership team and voiced great pleasure over his role as one of the LifeLink Founding Fathers and his willingness to “sign on the bottom line” for a line of credit that allowed LifeLink to begin its remarkable and rich history.
Dr. Samuel Weinstein known as “Sam” to his colleagues and friends, joined the transplant practice team in 1978 after finishing his residency at the Medical College of Virginia and his fellowship at Tufts New England Center in Boston. Board-certified in Internal Medicine and Nephrology, he brought a high level of energy and focus to the small but growing renal transplant effort at Tampa General Hospital. He also played a key role in the startup of Tampa General Hospital’s heart transplant program as a “hands on” consultant in regard to immunosuppressive management. As the senior transplant nephrologist of one of the nation’s most active renal transplant programs, he is highly regarded and respected. Dr. Weinstein has retained a research focus throughout his 35-year career in Tampa and helped to bring new immunosuppressive medicines forward through clinical trials. His verbal and financial support to start up and sustain LifeLink was a critical element in the formation and subsequent growth of the organization. A remarkable physician and scientist who also possesses a superior bedside manner, Dr. Weinstein was key to the genesis of LifeLink. Dr. Weinstein continues to practice transplant nephrology as the senior member of the Tampa General Medical Group practice. He has touched thousands of lives… including our own.
Dr. John Whelchel was the Founding Father of LifeLink of Georgia, and in fact he originally coined the name LifeLink. He was a native of Georgia and had military ties. His higher education began at the Citadel and continued at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, where he received his medical degree. His General Surgery internship and residency was with the United States Air Force at Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. He traveled North to Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital for his fellowship in Organ Transplantation and Immunology, before returning to the South and joining the medical faculty at the University of Alabama Birmingham. Dr. Whelchel returned to Georgia in 1986 and became the Surgical Director of the Kidney and Pancreas Transplant Programs at Emory University in Atlanta. In 1987, Georgia and Florida joined forces and combined their OPO and tissue activities by forming the LifeLink Foundation. Dr. Whelchel joined the Piedmont Hospital medical staff, also in Atlanta, to direct their transplant program in 1999 until 2012, when he retired from his surgical and leadership duties at Piedmont Hospital. All told, he performed over 4,700 transplants during the course of his long and productive career. He continued on as Medical Director of LifeLink of Georgia until 2014 and served as a member of LifeLink Foundation Board of Governors. In retirement he devoted time to his love of fishing and family time with his wife, daughters, and grandchildren.
Dr. Luis Morales Otero is a native Puerto Rican, born and raised in Santurce. He left the Isla del Encanto for schooling abroad, first to the States and the University of Kentucky. After completing his pre-med education in Kentucky, he traveled to Spain for medical school at the University of Barcelona. His heart always belonged to Puerto Rico, and thus he returned to the Island after receiving his MD. While completing his internship, residency, and fellowship at various hospitals across Puerto Rico, he began his mission of saving and improving lives through transplant surgery and medical treatment. Alongside fellow trailblazer, Dr. Eduard Santiago-Delpín, they laid the groundwork for Hospital Auxilio Mutuo’s kidney transplant program. It was Dr. Morales’ vision that an effective OPO would ensure the success of the transplant program, and in 1993, Dr. Morales approached LifeLink leadership proposing LifeLink bring their organ recovery methodologies to the Island. In 2014, LifeLink de Puerto Rico celebrated its 20th Anniversary with Dr. Morales’ continued support as its Medical Director as well as a member of the LifeLink Board of Governors. Presently, he is a Full Professor at the University of Puerto Rico Medical School Surgical Residency Department and is the attending physician at the Puerto Rico Kidney Transplant Program at Hospital Auxilio Mutuo. Amidst all of his collegiate and medical pursuits, he met and married the love of his life, Awilda, and together they raised three children who have provided them with wonderful grandchildren.