Boost for Kidney Transplants

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The Federal Medical Centre, Umuahia, is making a mark in many aspects of medical services. Emmanuel Ugwu writes on the successful commencement of kidney transplants at the healthcare facility, giving hope to people suffering from kidney diseases

When in January 2017, the Medical Director of the Federal Medical Centre (FMC) Umuahia, Dr. Abali Chuku visited the University of Toledo, Ohio in the United States of America, he returned home with a big dream. He intended to start kidney transplantation at the federal health facility in God’s Own State. But not many paid attention to that ambitious pronouncement which he made at a press conference in his office. However, the skeptics did not have to wait for long. By December 2017, FMC Umuahia successfully carried out two kidney transplantations with the beneficiaries now living with new kidneys which they got from donors and transplanted to their bodies to replace their malfunctioning organs.

The first patient to receive a new kidney was a 37-year-old businessman, Mr. Oji Ogbonanya Ule, who had been battling with kidney problem for four years. His new kidney was donated by his 58-year-old uncle who is a civil servant. The harvested kidney was given a new home in Ule’s body after 10 hours of surgical procedure that involved harvesting and transplanting the kidney the night of December 7 and the morning of December 8, 2017. The other patient in the list of pioneer beneficiaries of kidney transplantation at Umuahia is a 68-year-old medical doctor whose own kidney problem was diagnosed four months before the surgery. He got a new kidney donated by a security man who is his relative.

Making it possible for patients with malfunctioning kidneys to get replacements has stood out FMC Umuahia as the first medical facility in the South-east and South-south zones of Nigeria to carry out the complex medical procedure. It involves harvesting of a kidney from the donor and transplanting it inside the body of the recipient. It was therefore a huge relief for those suffering from kidney diseases as remedy has finally come within reach and at affordable cost.

This much was expressed by Ule after emerging from the medical procedure of receiving a new kidney. “They (FMC Umuahia) provided wonderful opportunity for poor people like us without the means to go abroad for transplantation,” he said, adding, “We also thank God for using the medical team to save our lives.”

Hitherto any diagnoses that indicated kidney disease was like a death sentence for the patient in this part of the country due to the absence of facilities to handle renal problems. The fear and anxiety associated with kidney disease is more pronounced among the poor who could not afford the high cost of kidney transplant abroad or in any of the few medical facilities that provide the services in Nigeria. Kidney problem is indeed one of the major health conditions that pushes Nigerians to embark on medical tourism in foreign lands with the attendant drain on the nation’s foreign reserve.

Chuku’s exposure to the medical excellence and global reputation of University of Toledo in kidney transplant inspired him to set in motion the process of replicating it in the Southeastern part of Nigeria. Already, the facilities for kidney transplant exist in a few medical institutions, notably St. Nicholas Hospital Lagos in the South-west and Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital, Kano in the North.

According to Chuku, the idea of establishing kidney transplant services at FMC Umuahia occurred to him in 2015 when he was honoured by the University of Toledo Ohio USA along with others from different countries. “This University (Toledo) is globally known for kidney transplantation. After my induction into its Hall of Fame, I was asked what I would want the university do for me and I chose establishing a Kidney Centre,” Chuku said.

The establishment of the kidney transplant facility at FMC Umuahia did not come in a jiffy. Chuku carefully planned and executed the project. Its journey commenced in 2015 following his induction into the Medical Mission Hall of Fame, University of Toledo Medical Centre, renowned globally for its expertise in kidney transplant. Chuku was also designated a Distinguished Global Faculty Member of the University of Toledo. After receiving the honours Chuku made a wish. He asked for assistance to enable him establish a facility to offer kidney transplant services at FMC Umuahia.

Consequently a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the University of Toledo and the Federal Medical Centre, Umuahia, was signed before he returned to Nigeria after the award ceremony. It did not take long before the MoU between the two institutions was activated. In April, 2017 Chuku sent a team of medical personnel to Ohio to observe live transplantation of kidney at the Toledo University’s Medical Centre. They also spent time studying the rudiments of the complex nature of kidney transplant so that when the procedure eventually begins at FMC Umuahia, it will not be strange to them.

Interestingly a Nigerian-American medical practitioner, Dr. Obi Ekwenna from the University of Toledo Medical Centre is at the centre of bringing kidney transplantation services to FMC Umuahia. He led the team of surgeons that carried out the kidney transplants. The other members of the medical team from FMC Umuahia were Dr. George Okwudili Acho, Dr. Mgbeojedo Chizoba, Dr Victor Ezieule, Dr. Paul Ngwu, Dr. Daberechi Ngwu and Dr. Chimezie Okwuonu. The success of the first phase of the kidney transplant project spurred the team of surgeons and the management of FMC Umuahia to embark on the second phase.

In January 2018, the team of surgeons went back into the theatre and carried out two more kidney transplant operations and recorded resounding success. The medical project has been working according to Chuku’s projections. He had promised that 40 kidney transplant procedures would be carried out this year at the FMC Umuahia.

According to him, 20 kidney transplants would be performed within the first half of 2018 while the remaining 20 would be concluded in the remaining half of the year. The results are very encouraging. Chuku praised the team leader, Dr. Ekwenna for the leading role he has been playing in the kidney transplant initiative at the FMC Umuahia. He also appreciated the contribution of Mr. James Ogbuka Umekwe from Ozu Abam, Arochukwu Local Government Area of Abia State, who donated large consumables to the Kidney Centre.

The Medical Director explained that the kidney transplantation services was a skills transfer project which FMC Umuahia hopes to run for four years by which period the Centre would fully optimise the transferred skills from the partnership with the University of Toledo Medical Centre.

The medical breakthrough at FMC Umuahia has not escaped the attention of the federal authorities. The Minister of Health, Professor Isaac Adewole visited the federal health institution during the second phase of the kidney transplant and saw things for himself. He saw the two kidney recipients and their donors while recuperating at the Intensive Care Unit and also met and congratulated the medical team and the hospital management for yet another feat in kidney transplant. The minister described the FMC Umuahia under Dr. Abali Chuku as one of the up-coming federal medical institutions which makes government proud with its breakthroughs thereby justifying government’s investments in the health sector. “I am always happy to visit this hospital and I am more than impressed with its breakthrough in kidney transplantation,” Adewole said during his visit.

He was impressed by the fast paced developments at FMC Umuahia hence he could not help describing the MD, Dr. Chuku as a “Magician”. The name has stuck with the MD as a sobriquet and a testament to professional and managerial competence in running the FMC Umuahia. The Health Minister also met the surgical team and congratulated them on the feat they have achieved at the FMC Umuahia and pledged the federal government’s continued support to enable the federal medical institution realise its mission. The medical team has expanded with additional members including Drs. Erondu Nosike, Orji James, Imaghigbe Frank, Chukwu John and Nwokorie.

The team leader, Ekwenna attributed the success of the kidney transplant procedures to team work and dedication of the medical team he worked with, adding that the collective efforts of all the members of the surgical team was a necessary condition for success in such a complex surgical procedure. He expressed satisfaction with the surgical skills of the Nigerian surgeons who he said needed little guidance to be able to undertake a successful kidney transplant.

Aside the dedication of the team of surgeons, the U.S.-based surgeon further stated that they also commended the mangement of FMC Umuahia under the leadership of Dr. Chuku for the manifest vision and commitment that was brought to bear in actualising the medical breakthrough. “Dr. Abali Chuku is a strong and committed leader. We met few years ago and he expressed desire to have transplantation centre in the South-east Nigeria at his FMC and I pledged to assist with my team in Toledo,” Ekwenna said while recalling the genesis of the journey to establish kidney transplant facility at Umuahia.

Usually a kidney transplant procedure involves double surgical procedures performed on both the donor and the recipient. There could be possible rejection of the organ by the new body. But Ekwenna said both the donors and the recipients were doing beautifully well, assuring that the donors, whom he referred to as heroes, would live normal life.

A member of the medical team involved in the kidney transplant, Dr. George Okwudili Acho said that the MD had demonstrated a lot of commitment and doggedness in the kidney transplant project. He expressed gratitude to God for crowning Dr. Chuku’s efforts with success.

Acho further pointed out that the FMC Umuahia has continued to reap bountiful fruits from Chuku’s vision of medical excellence, which according to him, has led to a very significant improvement in the various departments of the FMC Umuahia. He cited the operating theatre, the wards, laboratories and radiological services, among other facilities that were all upgraded to acceptable standard before the commencement of the kidney transplant project. The internal road network at the federal medical facility was also positively affected by the kidney transplant project. The entire roads in the hospital were upgraded and re-surfaced. The surgeon expressed optimism that the proposed National Sovereign Wealth Investment Authority Laboratory in the hospital would further improve standards and services.

The breakthrough by FMC Umuahia in offering kidney transplant services is very good news for patients battling with malfunctioning kidneys, especially in the South-east and South-south zones. No more would they have to travel far to access medical care. Not only that, the cost of the medical procedure has been drastically reduced. It is estimated that kidney transplant costs as high as N10 million.

But Chuku said that the vision of FMC Umuahia is to make kidney transplant in the facility the cheapest in the country. He said that the pioneer beneficiaries of the kidney transplant receives the services free of charge, adding that hospital’s Kidney Foundation hopes to subsidise each transplant to less than N3.5 million, which will make it far cheaper than in other Centres that offer such medical services in Nigeria. The MD noted that the incidence of kidney disease is about seven per cent of admitted patients. He therefore appealed to well-meaning Nigerians and philanthropists to buy into the cost of kidney transplantation, stressing that kidney transplant is cheaper than Renal Dialysis in the long run.

Kidney disease is one of the major ailments that is life threatening and exerts huge economic cost on the patient whether in the stop gap treatment of dialysis or outright kidney transplant. Symptoms of kidney disease, according to medical encyclopedia include high blood pressure, changes in the quantity and frequency of passing urine, change in the colour of urine, pain in the kidney areas, tiredness, loss of appetite, sleeping difficulties and headache.

Others are loss of concentration, itching, shortness of breath, bad breath and metallic taste in the mouth, muscle cramps, nausea and vomiting, pins and needle-like pains in the fingers and toes. In a situation where the patient can afford the cost of kidney transplant, finding a donor willing to part with one of his or her kidney becomes a hurdle. Hence Chuku was effusive in lauding the courage of the kidney donors and members of their families “for having the courage to donate one of their kidneys.” This gesture has made the recipients of the new kidneys to start living new lives with functional kidneys.