Transplant surgeon urges donors to get in the game at TEDxCharleston event

Dr. Satish Nadig shows the scorecard on transplants in his talk "How to Win Transplants and Influence People" at the fourth annual TEDxCharleston.
Dr. Satish Nadig shows the scorecard on transplants in his talk "How to Win Transplants and Influence People" at the fourth annual TEDxCharleston.

As if he didn’t have enough on his hands, transplant surgeon and business entrepreneur Satish Nadig, M.D., Ph.D., stood in the hot spot Oct. 19 for his eight minutes of TEDxCharleston fame.

With cameras rolling, the lead-off speaker for the fourth annual TEDxCharleston event got right to the point.

“Nine-month-old baby. Liver failure. Dying. That’s what the page read on that cold Ann Arbor night at the University of Michigan Hospital a few years ago,” Nadig said. “As transplant surgeons, we often get pages like this. But this one just felt a little different. Two hours later when that baby was transferred to our hospital, I realized why. It was worse than we thought.”

Nadig, now an assistant professor of surgery, microbiology and immunology at the Medical University of South Carolina, went on to describe the scene to a packed crowd at the Charleston Music Hall. By the time the baby boy was transferred to Nadig’s hospital in Michigan, the baby’s liver, kidneys and lungs were failing. Doctors placed him on a ventilator.

“Eventually, his tiny little heart stopped. We were able to get him back but we knew the clock was ticking. The time on this planet that he had to live was limited.”

Fortunately, a donor organ became available two states away. “We flew in the middle of the night, got this liver, brought it back and in an eight-hour grueling operation transplanted this child, and then we waited. The next few days were touch and go, but overall, he was making improvements.”

Two weeks later Nadig gathered his team for the routine morning rounds. His heart dropped when he went into the child’s room to see an empty bed and a nurse with a tear in her eye. A cascade of the worst thoughts went through his mind. As he looked more closely, though, he saw she was smiling and pointing to the playroom. He peered into the playroom and saw a beautiful baby boy cradled in his mother’s arms, surrounded by family.

“That baby who was dying two weeks before was very much alive. And that is the power of transplantation. What a victory. But folks, he’s a lucky one. The harsh reality is, we’re losing the game.”

With that statement, Nadig flashed up a screen that showed a scoreboard of patients awaiting transplants. With over 120,000 people on the list and only about 7,000 donors, the odds aren’t good. Twenty-two people are dying each day waiting for a lifesaving organ. “In fact, in South Carolina, if you’re waiting for a kidney transplant, it’s an average of three to five years. And the clock is always ticking. Every 10 minutes another person is added to that list. By the time I finish this talk, another person will be put on the list. We are losing the game.”

And that’s the beauty of the TEDx events. Aiming to educate and inspire, TEDx speakers and performers share their visions at “the intersection of science, art, performance and business.” To be a speaker for this event, Nadig had to spend 15 hours a week for the three months preceding the event honing his presentation. Personally, it was a sacrifice, but well worth it, he said after his session.

“My favorite part was the process. It deconstructs how we give presentations. Whatever shell you think you’re in, it completely breaks that shell and it reconstructs you to be able to give a presentation no matter the topic and completely engage your audience. The process changes you for life. I’ll be a different speaker. I give science talks all the time, but it brings the science to life. Being part of the TED program with the coaching and the energy and the choreography, it brings to life any topic.”

What he also likes is how the event, which features speakers on a wide range of topics, sparks conversations. This year’s theme was tipping point. One of his favorite speakers was 11-year-old Jackson Silverman, who spoke about kid power and his nonprofit organization called “I Heart Hungry Kids.”  

“I was brought to tears by his talk. For an 11–year-old to have the composure and the foresight and the ability to engage with an audience at that age is truly inspiring. It shows you that anybody can do anything they want and inspire others as long as they have a goal in mind - no matter their age.”

TEDx speakers issue a call to action as part of their talks to engage the community. Because many speeches become TED Talks, which are posted for free, this impact can be felt worldwide.

For Nadig, it’s a way to show the community its vital role in transplant. “I would not have a job if it weren’t for man’s humanity to man. If people don’t donate, then there are no transplant surgeons. There are no transplant physicians. It’s so integral to the community. Everyone is either touched by transplant or has the ability to touch transplant.”

The event also helps researchers share their work in way that’s easily understandable and shows that science can be fun and cool, he said. Nadig, who is one of the founders of ToleRaM Nanotech, LLC, is a pioneer in developing new technologies that promise to revolutionize the field of transplant. He used his time on stage not only to encourage organ donation, but also to give a vision of where the field can go.

His company is looking into better ways to deliver medications to keep organs from being rejected. “These anti-rejection medications are nothing short of poisons. They predispose you to infections, cancer, kidney disease, liver disease and are sometimes fatal,” he said. “What if we can actually target the drugs to the organs in need?”

His company is exploring nanotechnology, inventing a nanoparticle that encapsulates these vital drugs so they can travel to the organ in need and be delivered in lower doses. “This is so the organ can live longer, but more importantly, the patient can live longer too.”

Another exciting development involves finding ways to boost failing kidney function in ways that would let patients avoid dialysis and transplant. They are pioneering a concept where they take cells from patients’ kidneys and implant them into a three-dimensional, lattice-structured framework that has been bioprinted. The framework then is incorporated into the patients’ tissues, filtering blood just like kidneys would, he explained.

“That is the power of technology. These innovations of three-dimensional bioprinting, bioengineering, artificial tissue development represent the next era of transplantation and are truly game changers.”

Nadig ended with an appeal. “We can change the game all we want, but I have five very important words for you: We can’t win without you. Everything that I can accomplish in a lifetime cannot come even close to comparing to what you can do today. What’s the face of transplant? Look to your neighbor. You’re the face of transplant.”

In the case of organ donation after death, one person can save eight lives given all the organs that are in need. In the case of living kidney donors, a life can be saved immediately. Nadig gestured to the packed crowd to make his point. If everyone in the room needed a life-saving organ and just 10 percent decided to donate either now or later through a living or deceased donation, everyone would walk out alive.

“That is the ultimate power. The power of community – that you all have. So rise up. Get off the bench. Register to be a donor. Consider living donation. Join me in this battle. Join our team. Together, we can save more lives. Because the time is now. Someone else was just added to that list.