By Scott Maier, UCSF News
On a bright summer Saturday, dozens of children and their family members gathered at McNears Beach Park in San Rafael, listening to music, kayaking, having their faces painted, smashing piñatas, even playing with costumed Smurfs. For this group, the outlook wasn’t always this sunny.
The children are part of a special group: they’re pediatric transplant recipients from UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco.
The 19th Annual Chris Mudge UCSF Pediatric Transplant Picnic on Aug. 23 gave children who received transplants from UCSF and their families an opportunity to come together for support, to share knowledge and to celebrate having another chance at life.
The 300 attendees included those who had received pre- and post-liver, kidney and small bowel transplants, as well as physicians, transplant surgeons, nurses and others from the UCSF Transplant Service.
“Some of my patients now are married and come to the picnic,” said Phil Rosenthal, MD, former medical director of the pediatric liver transplant program and current director of pediatric hepatology at UCSF. “A lot of our families look forward to coming back to this picnic each year to reconnect.”
One of those returning patients was Justin Erickson of Redwood City. In 1992, he needed a liver transplant due to biliary atresia, a life-threatening condition in which the bile ducts are blocked.
Twenty-two years later, the 31-year-old City of San Carlos employee is a husband and father of a five-month-old daughter.
“The first five years after the transplant, it was a real rough battle,” said Erickson, who has attended every picnic. “I had a lot of ups and downs, but I’m doing pretty good now. It’s amazing all the things I’ve accomplished and the goals that I’ve met after the transplant.”
In sharing his personal experience, Erickson has advice for pediatric patients and their families awaiting a transplant at UCSF.
“If you are looking to have a transplant at UCSF, hold your hopes up,” he said. “You definitely are talking to the right caregivers. Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco is the place to be with the cutting-edge technology and the doctors that have the know-how.”
Erickson is living proof of the growing success of organ transplants. Before, a 50-percent success rate was considered satisfactory. Now, thanks to medical advances and improved immunosuppressive drugs to combat infection and rejection, more than 90 percent of transplant patients are surviving, including children.
Founded in the 1960s, the UCSF Transplant Service is a world leader in clinical transplantation and has developed innovative techniques while producing superior outcomes. UCSF began pediatric kidney transplants in 1964 and pediatric liver transplants in 1989, making it among the oldest children’s transplant services in the country.
“This annual picnic has really grown, and so have the pediatric transplant services at UCSF,” said John Roberts, MD, chief of the UCSF Division of Transplant Surgery. “You see these kids when they’re little, and now that they’re all grown up, it’s truly amazing.”
The picnic featured face painting, music, kayaking, pinatas and more to celebrate the children and their families who were given new life by successful transplants.
Chris Mudge, who retired from UCSF two years ago as a pediatric nurse practitioner, founded the picnic. The event was renamed in her honor in 2013 for her work and dedication to the transplant patients and their families.
“We are coming here to renew life and renew old friendships because many of us have been coming here for 19 years,” Mudge said. “It certainly warms my heart to see children coming back and doing so well.”
The theme for this year’s picnic was the “Tree of Life,” with leaves on the tree representing transplanted organs.
“Today, we’re once again accepting our gift of connectedness with one another and to the world and to be grateful for that,” Mudge said. “It’s a miracle, not only for the children who have had transplants but also for their families.”
Rosenthal added, “I defy you to tell me who has a transplant and who doesn’t have a transplant. You can’t tell just by looking, and that’s the whole idea.”