The list of technological, engineering and medical marvels that were introduced during the Boomer Years is truly incredible. We bore witness to true history in the making. A case in point is human organ transplants. It was a subject hardly on the radar of boomers and their parents after the war, yet by the end of the Baby Boom, advances in procedures and treatments were in the headlines.
Human skin grafting experiments were conducted as far back as the 16th century, but experiments in animal and human organ transplants didn’t begin until the 18th century. It took until the mid-twentieth century for breakthroughs that resulted in the first successful transplants.
During WWII, the U.S. Navy saw a great need for donated tissue. Beginning in the early 1800s, tissue grafting was generally accomplished by transferring a portion of skin tissue from one part of the body to another. Battle wounds and ship fires didn’t always allow for that contingency, so in 1949, the Navy established the first tissue bank. But organ transplants were a different story.
The heyday of medical breakthroughs for organ transplants came in the 1950s and ’60s:
• 1954 saw the first successful kidney transplant
• 1963, the first liver and lung transplants
• 1966, the first successful pancreas transplant
In 1967, the world watched and held its collective breath as Dr. Christiaan Barnard performed the first successful heart transplant in South Africa, though the patient ultimately lived only another 18 days. Coverage of the operation was akin to that of a space launch, with boomer families becoming familiar with all the involved parties before, during and after the historic operation. For the first time, there was a ray of hope for chronically ill heart patients. The first U.S. heart transplant followed one month later, in January of 1968. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. heart transplant, boomers.
As can be expected, the reaction around the country ran the spectrum from excitement at the scientific breakthroughs to condemnation that doctors were “playing God.” Boomers and their families watched as the drama unfolded.
In the 1970s, the discovery of immunosuppressant drugs — in particular, Cyclosporine in 1978 — greatly assisted in stopping patients’ bodies from rejecting transplanted organs, extending life.
As the legal, moral and ethical questions of human organ transplanting became more contentious, Congress passed the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act in 1968. The bill was meant to clarify and supplant the various laws that had cropped up on the state level. It permitted any adult to become an organ donor, and, in lieu of a will, any deceased person’s surviving spouse or remaining relative to make that choice. The bill covered the donation of organs, tissue and eyes. All states adopted the original version. It was amended in 1984, at which time the buying and selling of human organs was banned; then again in 1987 and 2006 to streamline the process of donating to address the growing needs for human transplants.
It seems quite remarkable to Mister Boomer that as a generation we watched human organ transplants begin at an experimental stage to where we are today. That is not to say the operations don’t carry a high risk or that they have become routine, but from the trickle of transplants that began in the 1950s, today we see more than 30,000 organ transplants per year.
Traditionally, especially during the Boomer Years, organ donations came from deceased individuals. In 2001, however, for the first time living donors exceeded that of deceased donors. The U.S. allows for living donations of one kidney, one or two lobes of the liver, a lung or part of a lung, part of the pancreas, or part of the intestines.
Transplants are indeed extending and saving lives, and boomers watched its progress happen in real time. The demand for organs to transplant is continuing to increase as the number of donors lags behind. Many states, such as Mister Boomer’s state, make the donation of vital organs after death as easy as a checkbox on a driver’s license renewal form. Mister B urges every boomer to take a look at what the process is in your state.
Did you know anyone who had a transplant during your boomer years? Are you listed to become a donor now, boomers?