Karen McPhail knows how it feels to lose a loved one to organ transplant-related illnesses. Her grandmother and her uncle contracted hepatitis through bad blood transfusions, and both died because they became too ill as they waited for organs to become available. More recently, McPhail lost her aunt to liver cancer — she also became too ill as she waited for a donor. So it is no surprise that McPhail has dedicated the better part of two decades to raising awareness and supporting medical research in the transplant area.
McPhail, a resident of Great Falls, is originally from Pennsylvania and grew up just outside of Pittsburgh. In 1986, as a nursing student at the University of Pittsburgh, McPhail volunteered in the school's pediatric intensive care unit and worked with Dr. Thomas Starzl.
"Her really revolutionized transplant work," said McPhail. "He developed many of the techniques that have become the mainstays of today's procedures."
During that time, McPhail was able to learn a great deal about organ transplant procedures. She would go on recovery trips to pick up organs, and was present as Starzl and other doctors figured out the proper post-operation medicine doses for transplant patients. After earning her master's degree in nursing, McPhail also went on to work as a health care consultant.
IN 1998, McPhail founded the Transplant Institute Foundation with Georgetown University Hospital transplant surgeon Dr. Lynt Johnson, and Georgetown University Hospital transplant anesthesiologist Dr. Jeffrey Plotkin. The mission of the Foundation is to provide educational and community outreach projects to increase awareness of organ donation and transplantation, to support innovative pilot research projects in clinical transplantation, to enhance technical and concept development transplantation and to provide patient and family hardship assistance to those who qualify.
The first Transplant Institute Foundation fund-raising event was a charity golf tournament held in 1998. Since then, McPhail and her fellow Foundation volunteers have continued to throw local fund-raisers several times a year. Next month, the Foundation's first ever Autum Gala will be held on Nov. 11 at Riverbend Country Club in Great Falls. There will be casino games, dancing, food and a live auction — and McPhail hopes to raise around $100,000.
"That's what we usually do per event ... we used to do really well when we had great corporate sponsors in the past," said McPhail. "Unfortunately, after 9-11, all of the major corporate sponsors dried up and it's very difficult to get any grants or donations now … we're doing fine, but I think we could do a lot better."
McPhail is particularly proud of her organization because 100 percent of the proceeds go toward the cause.
"Unlike other charitable organizations that I've worked with, we do not have overhead costs," said McPhail. "We have no paid employees and are all volunteers, so I feel good about the fact that not a dime is wasted."
McPhail says there are about 15 core volunteers that make up the Transplant Institute Foundation, and that it has been the same group of people throughout the years — which has subsequently made the process of organizing fund-raisers relatively painless. Foundation coordinator Renee Kennedy has been working with McPhail from the start and is currently the senior financial coordinator at Georgetown University Hospital.
"It's a very good foundation because it's driven totally for patients who are indigent and can't afford their medications, and toward research," said Kennedy. "So I think it's a wonderful thing if we can get out in the community and get help for more patients ... I know if I was in that space or if that was my situation, I would want somebody to try to reach out and help me."
MCPHAIL SAID that she believes it is more important than ever to raise money for organ transplant research because so many promising medical advancements are on the horizon. One example is the headway being made with fibrin sealants, which are used to stop bleeding during surgery.
"Right now they use a lot of fibrin gels which are really messy," said McPhail. "There is a lot of bleeding during a transplant and if it can be minimized it would be really good."
McPhail is also enthusiastic about advancements in laproscopic surgery for kidney transplants.
"It's a non-evasive procedure, the donor recovers in 1-2 days and there is minimum scarring," said McPhail. "You're back to eating and drinking the next day, and back to work in a week."
She added that many people are simply poorly informed when it comes to the facts about organ donation.
"You don't need two kidneys," said McPhail. "People always say that they want to hold on to both in case of kidney failure, but if you have kidney failure you lose both of your kidneys at the same time."
She added that many people believe that kidney transplants are unnecessary because patients with kidney disease can survive on dialysis.
"Patients on dialysis never feel good," said McPhail. "They are up and down because as soon as the dialysis is done the toxins start to produce in their body again, and in actuality, patients on dialysis typically only live for 1-2 years."
Liver transplants are much more complicated than kidney transplants, and the wait for liver donors is a lengthy one. Subsequently, McPhail works hard to educate people about the importance of identifying themselves as organ donors on their driver's license.
"It's so simple — just sign it," she said.