Boomers Watched as Transplants Saved Lives

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?

Boomers Got Penicillin Shots

It’s cold and flu season once again, and according to the Center for Disease Control this is a particularly bad season for the flu. When boomers got a bad cold or the flu, our parents took us to the family doctor who, after a cursory exam, would administer a penicillin injection. The next day, or certainly within two days, we’d be right as rain and back in school. Around the 1970s and into the ’80s, the use of penicillin — given both orally as a pill or as an injection — started to wane. Penicillin use is far from the norm today.

The Mayo Clinic says penicillin was never the right course of treatment for colds and the flu. The reason is the drug is useful for bacterial infections, but is not effective for viral infections like colds and the flu. This would have been known from the start, so family doctors in the 1950s and ’60s would have had this knowledge. Then the whole antibiotic-resistance evolution enters the picture. Today’s bugs are much more resistant to the antibiotics that were regularly distributed during our boomer years. But what goes on here? Every boomer Mister Boomer knows recalls getting better very quickly when given a penicillin shot in their school years, though most of us hated the experience. Surely it can’t be a placebo effect for an entire generation, can it?

Penicillin was first discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928. The use of the drug was vital during World War II to fight infections in the wounded, but mass production proved a daunting task. The great need during the War spurred development and its use in the military became widespread — for a narrow range of bacterial infections — around 1942. After WWII, Australia became the first country to make penicillin available to the general public. The U.S. followed suit in 1945. The drug also was used to treat syphilis and gonorrhea and is credited with widely reducing the spread of STDs in the post-war 1950s.

Yet for boomers, it was a shot in the arm, from a doctor who was usually an older man, who asked your parents if the child before him was allergic to penicillin. Since an injection could cause slight pain and discomfort for a couple of days, Mister Boomer usually offered up his left arm for the intra-muscular injection. Inevitably, that evening, Brother Boomer would find an excuse to somehow bump or hit the “shot arm.” Cries of “Mom, he hit my shot arm,” could be heard from Mister Boomer or his sister. After a drag on her cigarette, his mother would tell the older brother to leave his brother or sister’s “shot arm” alone. Often the next day, it was back to school. Did penicillin do its job?

Mister Boomer has a theory about the disconnect between the effectiveness of penicillin on colds and flu, and what we experienced as near-miracle recovery times with what was thought of as Modern Age treatments. His theory is two-fold; first, penicillin was effective on certain infections such as strep throat, so what was thought to be a cold or flu may have been a different type of bacterial infection altogether that the penicillin could attack. Second, it was an age of paternalism in the medical world. Doctors didn’t tell patients all that much since he — the doctor was almost always male — could be trusted to know more than his patients. There were very few Marcus Welbys out there. Some were downright condescending. Under this portion of Mister B’s theory, these egotistical medical professionals said they were administering penicillin because the general public had heard of and knew about the drug. Old man doc may have had any number of other drugs in his syringe.

Today we are in a world of bacteria that is increasingly resistant to the antibiotics that were common in our boomer years, so the development of new treatments is an ongoing process. In our boomer years, a shot in the arm was an unpleasant experience, but usually did the trick.

Do you remember getting penicillin shots for colds and flu, boomers?