• Article
  • October 27, 2017

One of the First Pediatric Kidney Transplant Patients Still Going Strong

Tommy Hoag's kidney has lasted 50 years and counting. 

Students practice their pipetting skills onboard the mobile lab.
Left to right: Richard Fine, M.D., Gemma Lafontant and Thomas Hoag

By Owen Lei

In February 1967, 6-year-old Tommy Hoag became the first Children's Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA) patient to undergo a kidney transplant. A bout with scarlet fever left Tommy's kidneys with glomerulonephritis, a disease that damages their ability to filter waste and fluids from the blood. A team of doctors treating Hoag, including then-CHLA pediatric nephrologist Richard Fine, M.D., concluded the only way to save the boy's life was a renal transplant.

The procedure was only a few years old at the time, most often done between twins and rarely suggested for children. But blood and tissue tests showed that Tommy's father was a great match, and doctors were optimistic. "I remember being wheeled into the operating room, and my father was already there and happy to see me," says Hoag, who is now 56 and lives in Las Vegas. "My dad was a die-hard baseball and Babe Ruth fan. When he saw me, he said, ‘Come on in, Bambino! Let's get this done!'"

Just as Babe Ruth made his mark on history, Hoag's successful transplant has the distinction of holding one of CHLA's most notable records—his father's gift of life has now lasted 50 years and counting. Hoag's kidney is, if not the longest, one of the longest functioning live donor kidneys to a child in U.S. history. Doctors say it's rare for a donor kidney to last so long.

"The success of Tommy's transplant jump-started the Nephrology program at the hospital," says Carl Grushkin, M.D., CHLA's current chief of Nephrology, who happened to be a resident in 1967 when Hoag's surgery took place. "We have performed nearly 1,100 kidney transplants since Tommy's."

This spring, Hoag and Fine reunited at the hospital for a ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of Hoag's transplant. Not only was Fine the one who diagnosed Hoag with kidney failure and glomerulonephritis, he was the driving force in starting the Dialysis Program at CHLA the same year. This program continues to be one of the two largest pediatric dialysis programs in the U.S.

"Seeing Tommy and how well he's done for such a long time is one of the highlights of my career," says Fine, who is a professor of Clinical Pediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. Fine says medical literature in the 1960s discouraged pediatric dialysis and renal transplantation, but he believed it was the only option that could save the boy's life. "We had no idea 50 years ago that we could accomplish having someone survive with one kidney for 50 years."

After the ceremony, Hoag chatted with Gemma Lafontant, 14, of Burbank, California, who at the time was CHLA's most recent kidney transplant patient. Gemma has chronic kidney disease and received a pre-emptive donor kidney in February. "It's amazing that his kidney's lasted 50 years," Gemma said. "That could be me."

Hoag, who spent six months recuperating in the hospital after his procedure, found it remarkable that Gemma was able to go home in less than two weeks. "Every now and then I get asked about being a ‘pioneer,'" Hoag says. "It's not something I tried to set a record for; it's just something that was meant to be. And it's worked out well for me and so many others."

Owen Lei is a senior public information officer at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. Send questions or comments to magazine@childrenshospitals.org.