Obituary: Robert E. McCabe Jr. / Early specialist in kidney transplants

Feb. 20, 1925 - Aug. 29, 2013

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The clock was ticking. The kidneys of a 14-year-old girl who had died in a Virginia hospital had been removed from her body with her parents' consent, in the hope the organs might extend the life of others.

But with only a rudimentary computer network to help them in 1979, officials at Norfolk General could not find a suitable recipient for one of the kidneys, and they knew they had only 72 hours, at most, to do so.

So they reached out to St. Luke's Hospital Center in New York, where Robert E. McCabe Jr., an early specialist in kidney transplantation, was head of the renal preservation lab. He began looking for potential recipients but found none. Nationally, not a single compatible recipient could be found among 6,000 or so people awaiting a transplant. He called colleagues in Italy and Kuwait. No luck.

Then, cutting through the Cold War tensions of the time, he called the Soviet Embassy in Washington and told them to relay a message to Valery I. Shumakov, a prominent transplant surgeon he had met that April: A kidney was on the way -- please find it a home.

The girl, who had suffered head trauma in a traffic accident, had died shortly after noon on a Tuesday in June. The next day, working with the embassy, St. Luke's put the kidney on a flight to Moscow out of Kennedy International Airport. The kidney arrived safely, and Shumakov soon reported that he had successfully transplanted the organ into a 36-year-old man that Thursday afternoon. (The girl's other kidney was implanted in a 51-year-old man in Newark, N.J.)

In the worlds of medicine and international politics, Dr. McCabe's determination to link donors with recipients had brought about a rare collaboration with the Soviets. But for Dr. McCabe, who died at 88 on Aug. 29, the episode underscored the shortcomings in the American system of kidney donations.

Robert E. McCabe Jr. was born on Feb. 20, 1925, in Charleston, W.Va. He graduated from Williams College in 1948 and received his medical degree in 1953 from Cornell University Medical College. He served as a surgeon in the Army from 1955 to 1957.

Dr. McCabe died of cancer at his home in Londonderry, Vt., his family said.

obituaries - nation - health


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