Lynt Johnson still remembers the patient—a teacher from Baltimore whose husband was a doctor. It was 1994, a year after Dr. Johnson had started a liver-transplant program at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
Johnson’s first transplant patient had died in the operating room; his second was doing well. The Harvard-trained surgeon was troubled by what he considered a 50-percent survival rate.
“We’re not God,” his wife, Gloria, would tell him. “God gave us talents, but God’s in control.”
Johnson had convinced his bosses at Maryland that he could build a program from scratch, even though he’d only recently finished his medical fellowship. He was 35, and he was transporting organs in Igloo coolers in the trunk of his Toyota.
When he got the call that a doctor’s wife was coming in with acute liver failure after a reaction to medication, Johnson wasn’t sure he should be the one to help. The patient was comatose. If she didn’t get a liver in the next eight hours, she would die.
“Maybe we should transfer her to another hospital, a program that’s a little more experienced,” Johnson told the woman’s husband.
The man listened and said he’d let Johnson know. He came back later that night. “I met with my rabbi,” he said. “We’ve decided our fate is with you.”
The woman’s liver was so badly damaged that she’d been placed at the top of the transplant list. Johnson got an organ offer the same evening—a liver from a teenager whose lungs had failed. The teen had spent time on a coronary-bypass machine, which malfunctioned, leaving him brain-dead. Doctors had never used an organ like this for transplantation—there was a chance the machine had damaged the teen’s liver—but it was the only organ Johnson had.
“Nobody’s done this before,” he told the woman’s husband. “I think we ought to give it a shot.”
When Lynt Johnson was in college, a dean once told him that Harvard Medical School must have lowered its standards if he got accepted. Johnson took the remark as motivation: Soon he was a medical resident flying from Boston to Charlottesville in a small jet at sunrise to recover an organ that would change someone’s life.
“It would almost be a handoff,” Johnson says. “You had one team that took the organ out and another team back at the hospital starting the operation.”
Johnson, now chief of transplant surgery at Georgetown University Hospital, has performed more than 1,000 transplants since he helped save the teacher from Baltimore. He came to DC to open the hospital’s multi-abdominal-transplant institute in 1998. The program, the only one in Washington performing liver transplants, now has one of the highest post-transplant survival rates in the country: Ninety-four percent of its liver-transplant patients make it through the first year, when the body is most likely to reject a new organ.
When Johnson started doing transplants 15 years ago, about 35,000 Americans were waiting for organs. With medical advances keeping patients alive longer and with rates of kidney disease rising, that number has nearly tripled. “You line up everybody that’s waiting on an organ, you could fill FedEx Field,” he says.
In the Washington area, nearly 1,600 people need a kidney—the District has the nation’s highest rate of kidney disease—and 170 are waiting for a liver. More than 150 patients are waiting for a pancreas, intestine, or lung. Thirty-two people need a new heart.
According to Donate Life America, while 90 percent of Americans say they support organ and tissue donation, only 56 percent of those who could designate themselves as donors—by signing up on a driver’s license or donor registry—say they would be willing to donate. Eighteen people die in this country every day waiting for an organ. Johnson has had patients travel to China, against his advice, to buy one.
About half of Johnson’s kidney transplants now involve living donors. The hospital recently performed its first paired kidney exchange. In such a procedure, a patient who has a willing donor—but isn’t a match with that person—exchanges donors with someone else, resulting in two transplants. Doctors at Georgetown are planning a three-way kidney exchange.
Georgetown’s Dr. Keith Melancon, whom Johnson recruited last year from Johns Hopkins, has introduced a blood-cleansing process that allows kidney recipients to receive an organ from a donor with an incompatible blood type. The procedure, called plasma pheresis, recently saved a Silver Spring woman who was able to receive her sister’s kidney without rejecting it.
Last year, Johnson performed 12 live-donor liver transplants. Because the liver regenerates, surgeons can extract part of the organ and give it to someone else; both livers grow back to normal size. The surgery is risky enough that donors have to go through counseling before they sign on. Georgetown is now doing laparoscopic-assisted live-donor liver transplants, a surgical approach Johnson never thought he’d see. Donors are left with a scar of about three to four inches.
Still, most of the organs Johnson uses come from people who have died suddenly from trauma, strokes, or aneurysms. That’s the part of the job he doesn’t like to think about.
Johnson was a third-grader when he visited his grandmother in the hospital and noticed she looked different. After she died, relatives told him she had jaundice, a problem with her liver that she got from drinking too much Pepsi.
Growing up in Savannah, Johnson enjoyed going to the pediatrician, even when he had to get shots. He decided he’d be a doctor one day.