Betty Burkhard of Kingsville, Maryland has a deep appreciation for the butterflies that frequently visit her backyard. She enjoys spending time in her garden, admiring their beauty, and reflecting on a time when she wasn’t sure whether she would ever be able to see such sights again.

An untreated case of strep throat as a child damaged both of Betty’s kidneys, and in 1973, at 23 years old, she suddenly lost her vision from kidney failure. Doctors at University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) told Betty that a kidney transplant was her only option for restoring her eyesight. Fearing the worst, Betty reluctantly agreed to undergo the procedure. The first kidney transplant ever occurred in 1950, and by 1973 there were still many unknowns, including how to keep the kidney from rejecting after transplant.

Betty’s transplant took place on February 26, 1973, two days before her 24th birthday. The procedure was a complete success, and Betty’s vision was restored within five hours after her surgery. She was so thankful for the “gift of life,” and couldn’t wait to be well again. In the months following her procedure, Betty purchased her first 35mm camera and used her newfound love of photography to help get her through recovery.    

Forty-one years later, Betty still has her kidney. She has been living with her transplanted organ longer than any other surviving UMMC patient, as best the hospital can determine.

She attributes her successful recovery to heeding her physician’s advice. She adhered to the limitations and guidelines given to her following the transplant regarding diet, physical activity and medication. Ten years ago, Betty survived two heart attacks and bypass surgery, and her transplanted kidney presented no complications.

“We have known for a long time that patients who faithfully take their meds and check their labs tend to do well most of the time,” says Dr. Silke Niederhaus, a UMMC transplant surgeon who received a new kidney of her own at age 10 and is still living with that transplanted kidney. Dr. Niederhaus has never treated Betty but is aware of her story. “I am always glad to hear the success stories because as a surgeon we often see the patients who don't take good care of their transplants come back with complications. It's good to remember the ones we never see again from time to time.”

Betty loves telling other transplant patients that she’s had her kidney for so many years. When she first had her transplant, few people knew anyone else who had such a procedure. Today, she is a source of hope for others who are living with a transplanted organ.

“If you listen to the rules they give you, you have a much better shot at keeping your organ. My doctor used to say to me, ‘I don’t care if Jesus Christ himself descends from the clouds – don’t you change your medicine!”

“I say, keep it up, Betty!” says Dr. Niederhaus. “I'm far from getting to records of 40+ years, but it sure makes me hopeful that my kidney may stick around for a while.”

Betty’s doctor is now deceased, but she sees her nephrologist regularly, just like any other patient. Today, Betty is proactive about her health – she has been a vegetarian for the last 26 years, and she controls her blood pressure. She enjoys training dogs and spending time with her family on their four acres of land in Kingsville. And Betty is still taking photographs, a passion that was cultivated during a time of healing and recovery, each one reminding her not to take the beauty of life for granted.

Dr. Niederhaus says, “After learning of Betty’s story, I want patients to know that it helps to be compliant, but even then, sometimes things work out very well, and sometimes they don't. Betty here is an awesome success, and I hope we can see many more like this in the future. However, there are never no complications. Heart disease is the most frequent reason people die, so take good care of your heart. Low cholesterol, blood pressure, and good blood sugars are very, very important too.” 

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