Kidney transplants are not often front page news anymore. Some 17,000 procedures are performed every year. But it was a very different story back in 1959, when two Oregon sisters made history with their transplant operation.
The Hamilton twins would undergo the first organ transplant on the West Coast. The kidney recipient, Charlene Hamilton, passed away in December of 2010 of unrelated health issues. At the time she was one of the longest living kidney recipients in history. Largely thanks to her sister Charlotte Hamilton, now Charlotte Cottle.
Charlotte and Charlene Hamilton were born identical twins, but you wouldn’t have known that by looking at them. From the time they were born, Charlene was the tiny twin, often too sick to play or go to school. Charlene suffered from a life-threatening disease called acute glomerulonephritis. By the time the girls were twelve it was clear that Charlene needed a kidney transplant to survive.
Blood tests and skin grafts were performed at Oregon Health Sciences University to confirm that Charlotte was a perfect match. But there were ethical questions. Was it fair to ask a healthy 12-year- old to undergo a risky operation to save her sister’s life?
“It had to be my decision,” Charlotte remembers. "It couldn’t be what my mother wanted or what my father thought I should do.”
Before she could make up her mind Charlotte told doctors that she needed to have a better understanding of what it would be like.
“I wanted to have a tour of where I would have the operation and find out how long it would be.” Charlotte said, “Not only was I concerned about me, but I was worried about what Charlene would have to go through, too.”
There were also legal issues to consider. The girls were minors and there had never been an organ transplant on the West Coast and only 18 in the world. The family would have to go to court for the transplant to go forward.
Dr. John Barry headed up OHSU’s kidney transplant program from 1976 until 2009.
“The parents came forward and said look, if the well twin is not allowed to donate and save the life of the sick twin, then we think the well twin will be forever psychologically damaged,” said Dr. Barry.
The historic operation took place at OHSU on October 9, 1959. Film from the KGW archives shows the Hamilton family at a press conference the day of the operation. There is also an interview with Dr. Joseph Murray who flew in from Boston to head up one of the transplant teams.
“The operation took about 4 hours and at this point both twins are doing very well,” Dr. Murray told reporters afterwards. The girls recovered quickly. Charlene had weighed only 45 pounds at the time of the surgery. By a year after the surgery, the girls were the same size for the first time. The girls would go on to celebrate birthdays, new babies and anniversaries together.
Charlotte says she always knew how grateful Charlene was. “She was always happy to see me and so thankful that I gave her the gift of life, that’s what she would always say, the gift of life.”
With her sister’s passing Charlotte says she has reflected on that monumental decision she made at the age of 12, and each time she comes to the same conclusion.
“If I had to do it over again,” she says, “I would, regardless of anything else.”