Edith Helm, 76, first woman to receive kidney transplant
Edith Helm was a 20-year-old newlywed from Oklahoma in the spring of 1956 when doctors said she had months to live. Her kidneys were failing fast.
Doctors at what was then Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston had performed the first kidney transplant in history two years earlier. But they had never tried the operation on a woman. Mrs. Helm was the first.
When she died Wednesday at age 76 in Chandler, Okla., from complications of dementia, she was the world’s longest-surviving transplant recipient and the first kidney transplant patient to give birth.
Her kidney came from her identical twin, Wanda Foster, who lives in Davenport, Okla.
“She never brought it up again,’’ Foster said in an interview with the Globe. “It was just like she got her life, and she lived it. That’s what she did.’’
Mrs. Helm worked most of her life as a cook in school cafeterias and at a senior center in Chandler, her sister said. Her greatest joy was her offspring: a son, a daughter, and grandchildren.
As young women, Mrs. Helm and her sister put their trust in their doctors and never looked back.
“I don’t think I even gave an extra thought,’’ Foster said of her decision to give her sister a kidney. “They said it could help her. I really hadn’t thought anything different. That’s what we wanted.’’
Mrs. Helm “was at death’s door’’ when she came to Boston, said Dr. Joseph E. Murray, the last surviving member of the team that performed the first kidney transplants.
“Fortunately, she lived a wonderful life,’’ said Dr. Murray, who is now 92 and lives in Wellesley.
He recalled consulting with a priest before doing the surgery “about the extra danger’’ to a woman of child-bearing age. “We received encouragement,’’ he said. “And the family wanted to go ahead.’’
“We were concerned about the kidney being traumatized by the birth of a baby’s head. We worried around operating on a woman, but we went ahead, after explaining it to the family very carefully,’’ he said.
The first kidney recipient in history was Richard Herrick, who died eight years after his 1954 surgery from problems unrelated to the kidney he received from his twin brother Ronald, who died in December.
Richard Herrick visited Mrs. Helm and her sister in the hospital before their surgery. News photographers later captured Mrs. Helm leaving the hospital with her husband, Lee, a dairy worker, in August 1956.
“I’ve never been operated on before, never been east before, never been on a plane before. This has really been an experience,’’ Mrs. Helm told The Globe then.
Near the end of Mrs. Helm’s first pregnancy, Dr. Murray asked her to return to Boston, where he cared for her at what was known as the Lying-In Hospital. His own wife was pregnant at the time with their fifth child. “She used to kid me and say, ‘You spend more time with Edith than you do with me,’ ’’ Dr. Murray said.
In 1996, Mrs. Helm and her sister returned to what is now Brigham and Women’s Hospital to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their operation and to honor Dr. Murray, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1990.
Dr. Stefan G. Tullius, who is chief of transplant surgery today at Brigham and Women’s, said Mrs. Helm and her sister helped make possible “the world of transplantation that we now know.’’
“Today we hear of the successes of kidney, liver, pancreas, lung and heart transplantation, and now, amazingly, even full-face transplantation. Society owes a debt of gratitude to the pioneering patients, surgeons, and physicians who have made these life-giving and lifesaving procedures a reality,’’ Tullius said.
In addition to her sister Wanda, Mrs. Helm leaves her son, John E. of Ripley, Okla.; her daughter, Vickie Hicks of Chandler, Okla.; two brothers, Kenneth Johnson of Sparks, Okla., and Jim Johnson of Davenport, Okla.; another sister Sandy Haines of Ponca City, Okla.; four grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
Services have been held. Burial was in Oak Park Cemetery in Chandler, Okla.
J.M. Lawrence can be reached at email@example.com.