MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Jeremy Cushwa isn’t the type of guy to back down from a challenge.
Diagnosed with renal failure nearly five years ago, Cushwa, 31, began a dialysis program near his home in Martinsburg that required three visits a week for at least three hours per visit. Despite the physical challenges a dialysis routine presents, Cushwa continued to put in full-time hours at his job in a retail warehouse.
By the time Cushwa was a candidate for a kidney transplant at WVU Medicine’s J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital in late March, the COVID-19 virus was just starting to emerge as a global crisis. He didn’t flinch when given the option to postpone his surgery.
“At the time, there were a lot of unknowns about the COVID-19 virus and quite a bit of fear,” Lynsey Biondi, M.D., physician director of transplantation and surgical director of the kidney transplant program, said. “We presented Jeremy with all the information we had and gave him the option of doing his surgery at another time but he said, ‘Absolutely I want to do this; I’m ready.’”
Cushwa is one of the more inspiring patient stories to emerge from the kidney transplant program at WVU Medicine, which has been in existence a little more than a year and has been responsible for six transplants. The kidney program and heart transplant program are part of the WVU Medicine Transplant Alliance, a support system for patients that includes some of the country’s top surgeons, physicians, and transplant professionals, who work closely with a broader team, including pharmacists, social workers, dietitians, and financial coordinators.
“I’m feeling great right now,” Cushwa said. “They did a great job with me. I’m not tired all the time, and I don’t have to go to dialysis anymore. I can do anything I want to do.”
The program was created with folks like Cushwa in mind. Prior to its inception, Cushwa received his care at the University of Maryland. The closest options for transplants for West Virginians were Pittsburgh or Baltimore.
“People are not having to leave this state and travel so far to get a transplant,” Dr. Biondi said. “And, I think we also worked to understand the needs of the people in West Virginia. We’re really finding that people had less education, less knowledge about transplants, so even people who could be referred were not going because it’s overwhelming.”
The comprehensive approach and in-state locale were two of the factors that led Tammy Butcher to WVU Medicine. Butcher, 50, from Craigsville in Nicholas County, has a genetic kidney disease likely inherited from her mother who had a transplant in the 1980s.
She has not been disappointed with her care, even when faced with a two-hour drive from her home.
“I didn’t want to go anywhere else but here,” she said. “They have everything here, and the whole team has been on top of everything the entire time. The transplant team has been awesome, and they’ve done more than I even thought.”
Butcher cited nephrologist Bethany Pellegrino, M.D., and Biondi as two of the program’s heroes.
“Dr. Biondi is amazing,” she said. “She genuinely cares about me and what I’m going through.”
There’s more good news for Butcher. Along with missing the unpleasantness and inconvenience of dialysis, she may have also added years to her life expectancy. The mean lifespan of a kidney donated from a deceased donor is 12 years, but Butcher may be able to receive another kidney if necessary. Some research shows that a transplant, with little or no time spent on dialysis, can lead to better long-term health.
As the program begins to build momentum, there will no doubt be more good news and inspiring stories to follow.
Biondi said the program has received more than 500 referrals since it started accepting them in November 2019. Many of the patients are too ill or have too many complications to be candidates for a transplant, but she says the referrals led to about 300 evaluations and 40 more candidates added to a nationally-regulated list.
Candidates on the list may have to wait as long as five years to get a kidney from a deceased donor, but Biondi is hopeful WVU Medicine will soon be allowed to work with living donors, which would cut wait times considerably.
The future is just beginning for the fledgling program, which also includes transplant surgeon, Roberto Lopez-Solis, M.D.
“We’ve built a team of people here who have done transplants in multiple places across the country,” Biondi said. “I’m very excited about the way things have turned out. When we came here, there was no program, no patients – it was a leap of faith. But Dr. Lopez-Solis and I knew the need was here, and that’s why we came here.”