Former Olympians Help Celebrate UCSF Pediatric Transplant Surgery Success

By Abigail Mortimore

Sixteen years ago, former UCSF pediatric transplant nurse practitioner Chris Mudge organized a small picnic at McNears Beach in San Rafael as an opportunity to celebrate kidney and liver transplant pediatric patients, their families and the work of the Organ Transplant Service at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital. The event was a success, and Mudge vowed to help coordinate another one the following year at the same location. 

Now called the “Annual Chris Mudge UCSF Pediatric Transplant Picnic,” the celebration draws more than 300 children and their families in addition to UCSF doctors, nurses, social workers, child life specialists, research coordinators and transplant support employees, as well as donors and community volunteers. Families have attended from not only California but Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Utah, Idaho and Rhode Island.

“The purpose of the picnic is to provide children and their families a chance to meet others who have undergone similar life-changing experiences and connect in a more informal setting with their health care providers,” said Mudge.

Mudge, who retired this past June, plans to continue to be involved. “It is such a joy for me to see the kids doing so well — some now even have their own kids,” she said.

UCSF is a leader in both adult and pediatric transplants for liver, kidney, pancreas and small bowel, attracting patients nationally and internationally. UCSF has performed more than 9,600 kidney transplants since 1964 and has the largest (in terms of volume) liver transplant program in Northern California.

The kidney and liver transplant programs at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital led by John Roberts, MD, a professor of surgery and chief of the Division of Transplantation, are among the oldest children’s transplant services in the country.

With advances in surgical technique and improved drugs to prevent infection and rejection, organ transplantation is now recognized as the most effective treatment for many diseases. Children who previously had little hope of survival in the event of organ failure, now thrive as healthy adults with transplanted organs.   

“Going to the picnic always is inspiring for me,” said Amy Peele, UCSF director of transplant services. “It’s a profound reminder of the courage of our patients and families, and how privileged we are to care for them. Life is so delicate, and our transplant team works hard to bring passion and commitment to every aspect of their jobs.”

The UCSF pediatric transplant community - notably the lasting relationships forged between the staff and their patients - also is recognized by others outside of UCSF.

“One of the things I really enjoyed at the picnic was observing how [the UCSF staff] connects so intimately with the pediatric transplant patients,” said Laura O’Neill, a transplant clinical associate at Kaiser who often refers her patients to UCSF. “These kids are in great hands under their loving care.”

And it’s those relationships that keep bringing former patients such as Ian Wong, 17, back to this annual event. Ian and his parents, Stan and Margaret Wong of San Francisco, have been attending the picnic for the past 14 years.  Ian received a liver transplant at 16 months old, and the family started attending and eventually helping with the planning of the annual event after he turned 2. The family designs the event T-shirt each year and now as he is older, Ian helps out at the picnic.

“As Ian got older and understood more about his organ transplant, he gained a sense of comfort seeing other children at the picnic healthy and happy. It gave him the assurance that he’s a normal kid just like everyone else,” said Margaret Wong. “This annual picnic is not just a party organized by people who take care of him medically but also a symbol of how much they care beyond providing great medical treatment.” 

Gold Medal Winners     

This year’s 17th annual picnic was held Aug. 11, and took on an Olympic theme in light of the recent Summer Games. Regular picnic attendees were joined by former Olympians, including swimmers Mark Henderson, Dan Veatch and Allison Wagner; equestrian athlete Gwen Stokebrand and triple jumper Erica McLain. After speaking to the crowd, the athletes recognized each child individually with his or her own “gold medal.”

“It was an honor to participate in the picnic,” said Dan Veatch, a swimmer at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. “I was overwhelmed by the kids’ enthusiasm and the families’ appreciation. Many of them have tough years ahead, but their families' support and love was completely inspirational to me.”

Another family in attendance was the French family of Novato. 

After being diagnosed shortly after birth with biliary atresia, a blockage in the tubes that carry bile from the liver to the gallbladder, Miya French, now 8, was put on the transplant list in 2009. 

Miya’s parents, Merle and Kim French, could not be candidates for living donation due to their own medical histories. However, Miya’s oldest sister Miwa, then 18, voluntarily had herself tested and was determined to be a match. Miwa, a freshman at UC Davis at the time, took her last college final for the calendar year, then checked herself into UCSF to donate a piece of her liver to her little sister the very next day.

The transplant was a success, and both girls have been thriving and continuing on with their busy lives every since.

This is the fifth year the Frenches have attended the picnic. “It means so much to be able to see and interact with the doctors and nurses who have helped save your child’s life,” said Kim French. “We have met and bonded with other families and look forward to seeing them every year.”

A budding swimmer herself, Miya took extra pride in meeting the former Olympians at this year’s event, especially the swimmers. The highlight of her day was being able to wear a real Olympic gold medal as shared by the athletes.

“Someday I am going to bring my own [Olympic] gold medal to the picnic to share,” Miya said. 

The 18th annual picnic is already in the planning stages and will continue to be held at McNears Beach. The Pediatric Liver Transplant Picnic is made possible through the support of many generous donors, including Genentech.

For more information about the pediatric transplant program, visit the UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital website.