A man who extended the lives of millions of kidney patients has died. All of us who care about kidneys would do well to take a moment to honor him in our thoughts.

Sandra Blakesleee of the NY Times reports, “As a young physician at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands in 1938, Dr. Kolff watched a young man die a slow, agonizing death from temporary kidney failure. He reasoned that if he could find a way to remove the toxic waste products that build up in the blood of such patients, he could keep them alive until their kidneys rebounded.”

As he began experimenting, the Nazis invaded The Netherlands. To avoid working with Nazi sympathizers, he moved to a small hospital in a rural area, “set up Europe’s first blood bank,” and kept working on his kidney machine.

“The device was an exemplar of Rube Goldberg ingenuity. It consisted of 50 yards of sausage casing wrapped around a wooden drum set into a salt solution. The patient’s blood was drawn from a wrist artery and fed into the casings. The drum was rotated, removing impurities. To get the blood safely back into the patient, Dr. Kolff copied the design of a water-pump coupling used in Ford motor engines. Later he used orange juice cans and a clothes washing machine to build his apparatuses. The first 15 people placed on the machine died.”

But then they started living longer. At one point he used the machine on a woman whom kidney failure had put into a coma. She lasted on the machine a long time. Immediately upon coming out of the coma, she announced that she was going to divorce her husband — because he was against the Nazis, and she was for them. She lived another seven years.

Doctors can’t save only the nice ones ….

Today let us honor the great Willem Kolff. Oh, yeah — he also invented the artificial heart. And gave credit to his co-worker, Robert Jarvik.

Willem Kolff, Doctor Who Invented Kidney and Heart Machines, Dies at 97 (NY Times)

Not all good people die young. — Kenny

Posted on February 13th, 2009 | filed under Uncategorized | Trackback |

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