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50 years on, one of world’s longest-surviving transplant patients continues to inspire others

Angela Dunn is one of the longest-surviving transplant patients in the world.

Now aged 74, and living in France, she has marked the 50th anniversary of her kidney transplant.

Angela Dunn, the longest-surviving kidney transplant patient, who had her operation in 1970 (39051371)
Angela Dunn, the longest-surviving kidney transplant patient, who had her operation in 1970 (39051371)

Surgeon Prof Sir Roy Calne, a pioneer of organ transplantation who was based at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, carried out the operation on July 25, 1970.

Before it, Angela had been surviving on dialysis and was not expected to live for much longer.

Then she was offered a kidney from a man who had died in a road traffic accident.

“For me, it was a miracle,” she says. “We were told the donor was from Birmingham, killed in a motorbike accident. What a generous family to give me a new life, whilst they were grieving.”

A case of hepatitis B on the airbase in Harlton, Buckinghamshire, where she was living meant Angela could not travel to Addenbrooke’s, so Prof Calne performed the operation at the RAF hospital there.

At that stage, with transplantation in its infancy, it was thought that organ recipients would only have a short life as an invalid.

But half a century later, Angela is well and happy, with no restrictions on her diet.

From the inception of the Transplant Games, she competed for Cambridge and Great Britain, running a mini marathon around Central Park in New York, tackling a terrifying 5km race through the rush hour in Athens and a 1,500m in the original elliptical Olympic stadium.

“Before my operation I did not expect to make 30,” recalls Angela. “I cannot express enough my gratitude to my donor‘s family, to Professor Sir Roy Calne, all the medical staff who have watched over me, and to my husband Eric.”

Angela lives with the knowledge that there is always a chance her kidney will be rejected by her body, and that has prevented her and Eric from having children, as it seemed to them like tempting fate.

Today, she spends her time gardening, cooking and organising events in her village near Cahors.

She says: “I have been very lucky. But you never have any certainty. I haven’t ever felt that there was any certainty.”

Professor John Bradley, consultant nephrologist and director of research at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, worked for many years with Sir Roy, who is famed for developing a drug to prevent organ rejection.

Angela Dunn with Prof Sir Roy Calne, who performed her kidney transplant in 1970 (39051373)
Angela Dunn with Prof Sir Roy Calne, who performed her kidney transplant in 1970 (39051373)

“He overcame many barriers to kidney transplantation, particularly in its early days,” says Prof Bradley. “Perhaps most notable was the development of effective immunosuppression to prevent transplant rejection, a field he continued to advance throughout his career.

“For so many patients he changed their lives, and he always maintained a keen interest in their achievements. The 50th anniversary of Angela’s kidney transplant is yet another amazing success that could not have been achieved without his extraordinary skill and devotion to patients.”

Kidney transplants from deceased donors last an average of about 10 to 15 years. For some, it may be less - two to four out of 100 patients do not survive the first year. And two to five transplants do not work. For others, like Angela, a transplanted kidney can last much longer.

A number of factors affect the success, including the health and age of the donor.

Kidney transplants from a live donor are more likely to work straight away, and often last longer.

Paul Bristow, chief executive of Kidney Care UK, says Angela’s story is a reminder of the value of the ultimate gift.

He says: “We cannot let this remarkable occasion pass without wishing Angela continued good health and celebrating the generosity of the thousands of donors and their families who make these life-saving gifts possible.

“Transplantation is one of the greatest successes in modern medicine. Stories like Angela’s are truly inspiring, showcasing how patients are given a future and a second chance of life, thanks to the selfless act of so many individuals – truly the gift of life.

“There are still thousands of patients waiting for this chance, and we urge everyone to sign up to the organ donation register and tell their families about their wishes so we can celebrate many more stories like Angela.”

Indeed, her story has proved an inspiration to many.

Andrew Norton, from the Addenbrooke’s Kidney Patients Association (AKPA), says: “Without the help and hard work by Angela in the earlier days of our Association we would not be here today.

“We would like to thank her and congratulate her and all the medical professionals who have enabled her to become what we believe is the world’s longest-surviving kidney transplant recipient at 50 years!

“She has helped and inspired us all and the whole of the AKPA committee join together in celebrating the 50th anniversary of her transplant by Sir Roy Calne. In the current situation we cannot do that in a physical meeting but hope that the remote one is still a great occasion.”

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