Arizona’s First Transplant Patient Helped Others, Despite Her Medical Challenges

Posted By Mike Padgett

May 19, 2009

PHOENIX, Ariz. – The young social worker’s courage kept pace with her fear, but her energy level was reaching empty. She was in pain, racing to an Arizona hospital. Her kidneys were failing. It was early 1969. She was 25, the youngest in the family.

“It was horrible, that’s all I remember,” Violet Lopez says today of the pain coursing through her muscles. “It was just awful. It was like an itch, like a really deep tissue itch that I could not satisfy by scratching.”

Violet was nauseous and in a world of hurt. She was restless in the passenger seat, her head down. Shooting anxious glances at her was the driver, Leonor, her older sister.

“She just kept telling me, ‘We’re going to make it, we’re going to make it,’” Violet says.

Violet and Leonor were in the Lopez express, racing west on dirt roads and blacktop between fields of corn and cotton. Gravel fired by the tires was clicking a loud rhythm against the bottom of their car. They were headed from their rural home in north Mesa to Good Samaritan Hospital in central Phoenix. It was 25 miles between home and help.

“I would have to put my head down because I was so nauseous,” Violet says. “Not doubled over but kind of squirming around in the seat. It was like dry heaves.”

A few months earlier, Violet learned from her Arizona doctors that her kidneys were shutting down. The doctors recommended a treatment that never had been performed in Arizona. Organ transplants would be considered rare, even experimental, for many more years.

Violet had a whirlwind of thoughts in the weeks and days leading up to this race to the emergency room. She thought about her older brother, Bill Lopez, ready to donate one of his kidneys to help her. She lacked medical insurance so her father was scrambling to pull together the $20,000 for her operation.

She thought about her job, her new apartment, recently paying the rent, and the hours of discussions with her doctors about the risks involved. They talked about traveling to another state for the operation. They decided they could perform the operation at Good Samaritan. But overpowering Violet on this day were fear and pain and nausea. She kept talking to Leonor about the pain.

“I told her, ‘I don’t think I’m going to make it,’” Violet says today. “I was just like gagging, but worse, now that I think about it. It was not fun. I was really very sick.”

They were praying there were no detours or traffic jams. Mid-afternoon traffic was heavy. Time was slowing to a crawl. Violet’s kidneys were shutting down. The accumulating wastes poisoning her body were causing a powerful itching sensation in her muscles.

When they reached the hospital, a medical team sprang into action. A doctor grabbed a long needle. He paused, then carefully inserted it into Violet’s abdomen to drain the fluids backed up by her failing kidneys.

“I remember they just said to tighten up your belly,” she says. “It was a huge needle. I had tanks and tanks of water coming out. I remember, immediately I felt so much better.”

During the drive and later in the emergency room, Violet prayed she would live a few more years. “I was thinking then, ‘Well, if I live to be 35, I’ll be happy.’ I was 25 then,” Violet says, laughing.

Her race to the hospital was 40 years ago. The transplant operation took place a few days later on Feb. 25, 1969.

Pioneering operation

Transplant surgery was a medical frontier when Violet was racing for medical help. The nation’s first successful kidney transplant had been performed in 1954 on identical twin brothers in Boston. The recipient lived another eight years. Anti-rejection drugs were not readily available for many years after Violet’s operation.

Despite the risk, Violet was willing to take the medical journey. That decision placed her and her doctors among Arizona’s medical pioneers, says Dr. Lawrence Koep, a surgeon who arrived in Phoenix in 1981. Koep and other surgeons helped reorganize and expand the organ transplant program at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center. He currently is in private practice at Arizona Transplant Associates in Phoenix.

That first night in her hospital bed 40 years ago, before the surgery, Violet felt panic. Her sister and the rest of their family had been with her earlier, but now they were gone. She was alone. She grabbed the phone and dialed her sister. Their mother died six years earlier. Leonor urged Violet to contact someone from their church. She did. A church official arrived at Violet’s bedside.

“That (counseling) felt great,” Violet says today. “I didn’t have any problems in the morning, going in to the surgery. I was pretty calm. I was really confident in my doctors. Now that I look back, I was not scared. I knew it was new, but I had no doubts that this was going to be what was best for me. It was not a thing of having second thoughts or anything. I just plowed straight ahead.”

Simultaneous operations

Six surgeons, according to a copy of a 1969 newspaper story about Violet’s surgery, worked simultaneously on Violet and her older brother, Bill. The doctors removed one of his kidneys and carried it in a sterile container to Violet’s operating table in another room, where the surgeons inserted it into her right side. Violet says the team of surgeons included Dr. William Cornell, a cardiovascular surgeon who has since retired. He was said to be traveling and unavailable for comment.

Violet’s brother called his donation of one of his kidneys “my birthday and Christmas present all rolled into one,” Violet told reporters, according to the 1969 newspaper account. Violet says she took Prednisone to help prevent rejection of her brother’s kidney. The side effects of the first anti-rejection drugs included weight gain.

“I really blew up,” Violet says. “You build up all this fatty tissue. It was just horrible. I went from 99 pounds to just not even looking like myself. It was very traumatic. I was only 25 so it was not a happy time.” 

Violet’s transplanted kidney functioned until 1981. She added dialysis to her life’s routine until 1986 when she received her second transplant. It came from a deceased donor. But when Violet suffered acute rejection, doctors removed the kidney within a day or so. She was forced to return to dialysis treatments twice a week. Each treatment lasted two hours.

In 1990, after four more years of dialysis, Violet underwent a third kidney transplant, also from a deceased donor. “This one is still ticking,” she says. “I’m trying to keep it as long as I can.”

A career of helping others

Violet, 65, recently retired from her career of helping others. When she underwent her first transplant in 1969, she worked as a child welfare worker for the Department of Economic Security. Later, she worked in community health at St. Luke’s Medical Center in Phoenix. She went on to become director of crisis services with a Phoenix mental health center.

Violet’s supporters say her career involved more than social work. She was instrumental in setting up mobile crisis teams that responded with police to calls involving domestic violence, suicide attempts or the mentally ill, says Charlie Thomas, a social worker at Banner Good Samaritan. He first met Violet in 1985, when he started working at the hospital.

“She had some of the most difficult social work jobs that are out there,” Thomas says. “She was a leader in her field, and she was a volunteer with the Arizona Kidney Foundation through the years.” 

In 1997, Violet fell and broke her left leg, her right ankle and injured her right knee. That was followed by two months in the hospital. Those injuries, along with facing months of relearning how to walk, led to her decision to retire.

After recovering, Violet became bored with retirement. She could have qualified for disability, but she says she preferred working. Friends told her there were openings at Arizona State Hospital. Violet applied and was hired. She worked there for several years, starting as a social worker in the adolescent unit and working her way into administration. She was director of admissions when she retired again in November 2007.

Violet, though still a reluctant retiree, today enjoys reading, volunteering in her church and studying her family’s genealogy. Occasionally, she glances through the scrapbook the hospital staff put together for her in 1969 after her first transplant. It contains letters, photos and get-well cards from medical workers cheering for her. Many other letters and cards arrived from well-wishers throughout Arizona.

“You can’t measure the value of a transplant,” Violet says. “You just can’t do it. It’s priceless.”

Reviewing her career and her medical challenges, Violet says she felt compelled to give back as much as possible, since others helped her. Long on giving is her nature. She also expressed gratitude for the donor of her third kidney. She says it came from a teenager who died in the Phoenix area.

“Hopefully, I’ve done well by that (donor’s) life. You hope that you do the best you can, that your life has meaning and value.”

For more information:

• United Network for Organ Sharing,

• Transplant Living,

• National Kidney Foundation,

• Coalition on Donation,


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May 19th, 2009

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