By Daniel Dunaief
Dr. Frank Darras, Clinical Professor of Urology and Clinical/ Medical Director of the Renal Transplantation Program at Stony Brook University Renaissance School of Medicine Hospital, has performed over 1,700 kidney transplants since 1990.
This year has been especially challenging for the surgeon, as he has had to enhance safety procedures to protect patients who are on immunosuppressants during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As part of the new normal for kidney transplants, Stony Brook takes time to test patients for coronavirus. In the first few weeks after the virus hit Suffolk County, the tests took all day. In recent weeks, the labs have produced test results within one to three hours.
Through late April, Darras said the hospital hasn’t had to send anyone home who had a positive COVID-19 test.
The long-term effects of COVID-19 on the function of normal kidneys is difficult to predict, he said. Many of the patients with the most severe symptoms from the virus not only needed ventilators, but also needed dialysis treatments. In the majority of cases where people recovered from the virus, their kidneys also recovered.
The hospital has also seen patients who received kidney transplants who have contracted the virus. “Several of these [transplanted patients] had diminished function, but all of them recovered their kidney function,” Darras said.
The longer-term effects of the virus are unknown. Some patients who were severely ill may have recovered, but have kidney problems that slowly escalate over time.
“I would not be surprised to see that happen, whether that’s months or years down the road,” Darras said.
Another unknown is how the virus would affect the transplant community in the longer term. “In the worst case, it’ll make our living donor pool smaller,” he said. About one out of three kidney transplants comes from a living donor. “On the other hand, in the best case scenario, [the virus will have] relatively little impact. It’s too early to tell,” he added.
According to Darras, people who need kidney transplants can extend their life expectancy by two to three times. He estimated that about five to six percent of the people waiting for a transplant died while on a kidney waiting list.
Darras explained that “time is of the essence” for many patients because the “longer patients are on dialysis, the more urgent [the need] to get them transplanted,” and added that finding donors is critically important, particularly during the pandemic.
“There is a concern about trying to make sure that we can get enough kidneys,” he said. “Our job and the job of LiveonNY is to raise awareness about organ donation.”