Northwestern first in Illinois to reach 10,000 abdominal transplants

Twenty-eight years ago, Brad Szczecinski was at a volleyball tournament in prime physical fitness when he ended up in the emergency room. His blood pressure spiked, and he learned quickly he would need a new kidney — the main regulator of blood pressure in the body.

“I had a plan,” Szczecinski said. “I was in my 20s and very healthy, or so I thought. I had ideas of being athletic, getting married, having a family and all of those things.”

Szczecinski thought all of that was over. But when he found a donor, it took him just weeks to get a transplant at Northwestern’s Organ Transplant Center.

The center recently performed its 10,000th abdominal organ transplant and was the first network in the state to reach that number. Northwestern’s transplant program began in 1964 and performed 518 abdominal transplants, the most in its history, in 2023.

It is headed by Dr. Satish Nadig, who said the 10,000 patients served is an important milestone for the hospital.

“We celebrate every life saved by an organ transplant,” Nadig said. “It is also time to reflect and thank the patients and family members who chose to donate their organs to save these lives.”

One major component of Northwestern’s transplant program is its accessibility initiatives, Nadig said. Dr. Juan Carlos Caicedo is the director of Northwestern Medicine’s Hispanic Transplant Program, which was created in 2006.

The program was the first of its kind, and the team has around 60 bilingual and bicultural doctors who connect directly with Hispanic patients. More than 1,600 Hispanic patients have been serviced by the program, according to Caicedo.

“We were the first in the nation focusing on and helping the Hispanic community, the largest minority in this nation with the fastest growth,” Caicedo said. “They did not have any center focus on them … By now, we have the largest team dedicated to them.”

That is not the only outreach project within Northwestern’s transplant program. Dr. Dinee Simpson directs the center’s African American Transplant Access Program, and said health equity means that everyone has the opportunity to attain their highest level of health.

She said the 10,000 transplants performed by Northwestern are important, but the effort to service marginalized and underresourced patients within that number has been crucial.

“When we talk about this extraordinary 10,000 transplant milestone, we must also consider that this was achieved in part by a shared mission to offer better access to all of our patients,” Simpson said. “I’m so proud to be a part of a transplant program that has made equity to access a part of the fabric of this everyday operation.”

Simpson said her team focuses on four areas: patient distrust in health care, cultural competency of providers, patient health literacy and psychosocial support. Her program has helped established clinics to meet patients in their communities, including in Oak Lawn and soon the Bronzeville neighborhood.

Szczecinski said the power of transplant access cannot be underestimated. As he got healthier, he said, his outlook on life and the world around him changed.

He said hopes the rest of Chicago gets to experience the same thing.

“I initially thought, ‘Maybe I have five years,’ so I kind of lived my life early on, like, ‘Oh, maybe I have five years,” he said. “But then I had 10 years and then 15. So then I started to change my outlook on how I live. I met a girl, got married, had a family. We’ve done a lot of travel … this is really a momentous occasion.”