Everyday Heroes: OHSU Doctor John Barry and his 2,500th kidney transplant patient

Mary Gale, left, was Dr. John Barry's 2,500th kidney transplant patient. (KATU)

OHSU surgeon Dr. John Barry performed his 2,500th kidney transplant last December.

He regards each one of them as a miracle.

And the real heroes, he tells us, are the living donors.

Since 1969, Barry has performed an average of 55 kidney transplants a year, reaching the milestone of 2,500 last December.

One year he performed 117 kidney transplants; another, he performed only 17.

“Well, you sort of hit a peak after about a thousand," he said.

The path to perform that many kidney transplants started in medical school at the University of Minnesota.

At night, he would read patient charts like other people read novels.

“One night, I went over and there was a familiar name, and I pulled the chart out and it turned out it was a diabetic classmate of mine when I was in grade school,” Barry said.

He remembered how his classmate would interrupt their play to administer his insulin shot.

He paid his old friend a visit in the hospital.

“I went into the room and asked him what was wrong,” Barry said. “And he said, ‘Well, my kidneys are shot. They’re thinking about doing a kidney transplant.’ They didn’t. He died and he’s buried next to my grandparents.’’

In the 1960s, kidney transplants were rare and often unsuccessful.

But along with Barry and other doctors and researchers, problems with kidney preservation, infections and selecting the right donors were overcome.

There are now 15,000 kidney transplants each year in the United States.

“Immuno-suppression was another, because the body has to be tricked into accepting this organ that comes from somebody else,” Barry said.

From 1976 through 2009, Barry was the director of the hospital's kidney transplant program.

He kept a numbered notebook on each and every one of his transplant patients.

“Just a quiet thing that I did, and then I mentioned it to someone and they thought it was special,” Barry said, just as his milestone patient, Mary Gale arrived at his clinic. “And there she is.”

Gale had a congenital kidney defect that led to her one functioning kidney to produce eight times the usual volume of urine.

She went in for the transplant with Barry on Dec. 4.

“He said, “I always tell my patients what number they are and you are number two-five-zero-zero,’” Gale said. “My first thought was that’s a lot of surgeries, and I already knew he was the best, but then I thought, that’s a lucky number. So, I need to buy a lottery ticket.”

Barry made it clear that he didn't do it alone.

He had the help of lab techs, nurses, and numerous other assistants and colleagues.

“The kidney is a complicated organ, but the complexity involves getting the person on the table to do an operation,” he said. “It’s a true interdisciplinary team effort to do that.”

For Gale, it was her younger brother, John Gale, who turned out to be a perfect donor match.

“I can only say thank you for giving me life again,” she told Barry. “You and my brother.”

“You’re welcome,” Barry said. “But your brother’s the real hero.”

Dr. Barry tells us that one of the major advances in transplantations happened in 1972 when Medicare was as added as a primary co-insurance for patients.

That breakthrough -- and innovators like Barry -- saved thousands of lives.

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