First kidney transplant
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The first kidney or renal transplant in Singapore was carried out on 8 July 1970 at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH). Doreen Tan (maiden name Khit Siew Gin), a 30-year-old housewife, received the organ from a 20-year-old national serviceman who had died a few hours earlier. In the years after successfully recovering from the surgery, she developed arthritis in her hip joint because of the drugs she had to take after the operation. She died on 19 March 1992, almost 22 years after the historic operation - this was, at the time, possibly the longest a patient had survived with a transplanted kidney in Asia. Her death was not due to kidney failure but an infection resulting from a hip replacement surgery done a few years earlier.
Two patients before Doreen were to have been Singapore's first kidney transplant recipients. But one of them, airline cargo officer Tan Lee Buan, died before he could receive a new kidney. He had struggled with kidney disease for three years prior to his death in May 1970. The other patient was shop assistant Lim Pong Kim. He had been ill in the days leading up to the transplant operation and turned down the opportunity for a new lease of life. He waited in vain for another kidney donation and died on 23 July 1972, after being on kidney dialysis for more than four years.
Before the transplant, Doreen had been suffering from kidney disease for several years. She had worked as a clerk at the Royal Air Force base in Singapore but lost the job after her kidneys failed, as she eventually became physically too weak from a severely restricted diet. She went into a coma in October 1969 and after she recovered, she was put on haemodialysis at SGH’s renal unit. She remained on the dialysis programme until the landmark operation.
The donor, Yee Kwok Tong, had been suffering from a brain tumour. His mother Lee Ah Hoe consented to the organ donation when she was informed that her son’s death was imminent after a four-day stay in hospital. She described him as a loving son and a caring sibling to his four brothers and five sisters. He left school when he was 12 and helped to supplement the household income by selling homemade cakes on the streets before joining Jurong Shipyard as a cook.
The transplant was carried out on 8 July 1970 at the Bowyer Block of SGH. Chan Kong Thoe, then head of the University of Singapore Department of Surgery, was the surgeon who led the operating team. The surgery took three hours and the kidney was transplanted into Doreen’s left side. A year earlier, the experimental transplant procedure had only been performed on a dog.
The surgery, which would have cost up to S$500 (first-class ward), was fully paid for by a S$1,800 grant from the National Kidney Foundation.
A day after the operation, the doctors discovered that the donor had died of a brain infection instead of his brain tumour and thus feared that the transplanted kidney could also be infected. However, they decided not to remove the kidney and chose to use drugs to fight the infection.
Following the transplant, Doreen was warded in a special sterilised room in a sterile ward of SGH’s Medical Unit 2, housed in the Clock Tower block. Her husband Bernard was the only relative allowed in, but many well-wishers visited her every day and waved at her through the glass panel of her room door.
Within days of the surgery, she was able to sit up and chat with her husband on his daily visits. The surgery was deemed a success when, ten days after the operation, she was able to pass urine for the first time in one and a half years. She was confined to the hospital for a month and spent her time reading and watching television. On 9 August, she was finally allowed to leave the hospital for a car drive with her husband. What she relished the most after the operation was the freedom of no longer being on a strict diet - she ate two plates of rice for each meal and indulged in her favourite food, stewed pork legs, and gained more than 10kg as a result.
By September, Doreen had been discharged from the hospital. She and her husband, both devout Roman Catholics, soon resumed their Sunday routine on 20 September. This meant having a pre-dawn breakfast in their Taman Jurong home, before leaving in their Austin Mini for St Theresa’s Church at Kampong Bahru to attend the 6:30 am mass. This was their first trip to the church since the transplant.
Within a year after the operation, Doreen developed arthritis in her left hip joint, a side effect from the drugs she had been taking since the surgery. Four years after the operation, she could no longer walk without crutches. Nevertheless, her spirits remained high and she looked on her future years with undiminished cheer and fervent gratitude. More than ten years after the operation, she was still coping well, albeit with a slipped disc. She also helped to inspire other kidney transplant patients, providing support, encouragement and advice.
A reunion to commemorate 20 years of kidney transplantation (1970-1990) was organised by SGH on 8 July 1990. About 150 people attended the gathering held at the hospital’s Bowyer Block, where the first kidney transplant operation took place. Among them were more than 40 kidney transplant recipients, including Doreen, and their families.
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Doreen up and about - in less than two weeks. (1970, July 22). The Straits Times, p.7. Retrieved February 9, 2010, from NewspaperSG database.
Kwee, M. (1974, August 18). Back to the grind, but it's a joy to Doreen... The Straits Times, p.6. Retrieved February 9, 2010, from NewspaperSG database.
Kwee, M., & Har, N. (1970, July 13). Kidney swop patient 'doing just fine'. The Straits Times, p.24. Retrieved February 9, 2010, from NewspaperSG database.
Lee, S. S. (1970, August 8). Dress poser for kidney swop Doreen, out today for an hour’s drive. The Straits Times, p.9. Retrieved February 9, 2010, from NewspaperSG database.
Lee, S. S. (1970, September 21). Just like one of those Sundays, says Doreen. The Straits Times, p.7. Retrieved February 9, 2010, from NewspaperSG database.
Lee, S. S. (1971, July 9). Doreen: feel fine with my year-old kidney. The Straits Times, p.9. Retrieved February 9, 2010, from NewspaperSG database.
Lee, S. S. (1972, July 31). The first death in kidney transplant operation. The Straits Times, p.17. Retrieved February 9, 2010, from NewspaperSG database.
Meet first S'pore transplant patient. (1985, February 17). The Straits Times, p.2. Retrieved February 9, 2010, from NewspaperSG database.
Nathan, F. (1990, 9 July). I count my blessings, says first transplant patient. The Straits Times. Retrieved on February 7, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Peters, M. (1970, July 12). The first kidney swop is a success. The Straits Times, p.1. Retrieved February 9, 2010, from NewspaperSG database.
Peters, M. (1970, July 16). Next for kidney transplant? The Straits Times, p.9. Retrieved February 9, 2010, from NewspaperSG database.
Peters, M. (1970, July 18). What does it cost to do a kidney swop? The Straits Times, p.2. Retrieved February 9, 2010, from NewspaperSG database.
Reunion marks 20 years of kidney transplants at SGH. (1990, July 9). The Straits Times. Retrieved on February 7, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Toh, S. (1992, March 27). Singapore’s first kidney transplant patient dies. The Straits Times. Retrieved on February 7, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
When the surgeons feared kidney transplant would fail. (1970, July 15). The Straits Times, p.1. Retrieved February 9, 2010, from NewspaperSG database.
The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
Politics and Government>>Health
Transplantation of organs, tissues, etc.--Singapore
Health and medicine>>Diseases>>Urogenital and urinary system diseases>>Kidney diseases
Health and medicine>>Medical science>>Surgery