A kidney transplant, and the surgeon who performed it, inspired a career choice.

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University of Washington junior Wade Washington was just 15 when he got a call that changed his life: He was going to receive a kidney transplant.

At birth, Washington had been diagnosed with bilateral cystic kidney disease, a genetic disorder that caused one of his kidneys to malfunction and the other not to grow.

For the first decade or so of his life, Washington could feel the symptoms of the disease, but they were mostly manageable. He played football (wearing special padding) and performed with the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra.

“But as I started high school, that’s when I really felt the effects of kidney disease,” Washington says. His doctor told him that his kidneys were at only 11 percent functionality. Anything below 15 percent is considered kidney failure.

Washington began dialysis, and about a year into treatment lost consciousness during an appointment. “I was told that I would need to get a fistula, which is a permanent access point for dialysis,” he says. This put him on the transplant list, where some patients stay for years while waiting to receive a new kidney.

The call that changed everything

A few months later, Seattle Children’s called Washington’s family to notify them that Washington was second in line for a transplant. “The next day, I got the call that I was now the primary recipient,” he says. The person ahead of him hadn’t been a match.

“I was so excited, but at the same time, I realized that it wasn’t really fair that I got the kidney and they didn’t,” he says. Washington resolved to pursue a career where he could change that outcome.

His decision was solidified after he met Andre Dick, M.D., the surgeon who performed his kidney transplant.

“When I saw him, I was taken aback,” says Washington. “I always had a stereotypical view of a surgeon being an older white man, but when I saw that Dr. Dick was African American, I thought, ‘I want to be him someday.’”

Helping others beat kidney disease

Today, Washington is thriving at the UW, where he’s getting closer to his goal of becoming a transplant surgeon.

One major step has been participating in undergraduate research, which helps students gain critical skills and knowledge that prepare them for future careers.

Washington conducts research at Associate Professor Edward Kelly’s lab at the School of Pharmacy, where he works with a device called kidney-on-a-chip.

This device houses live kidney cells that model the functions of a human kidney. In collaboration with investigators at the UW Kidney Research Institute and with support from Northwest Kidney Centers, Kelly’s lab is working alongside researchers from the School of Pharmacy and UW Medicine. The project was also funded by federal grants from the National Institutes of Health and NASA’s Center for the Advancement of Science in Space.*

Washington uses the chip to test the effects of various medications on kidneys, determining which are the safest. The work strikes a personal chord, as he continues to take medication to keep his kidneys healthy.

The fact that Washington has overcome so much — and that his own kidney transplant enabled him to reach this point — makes him even more thankful to be part of this research.

“I’m very grateful that I’ve made it here,” he says.

Visit admit.uw.edu to learn more.

*The four-year, $3 million grant (1 UG3 TR002178-01) was awarded by National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the organization tasked by NASA to manage the International Space Station U.S. National Laboratory, will contribute the space flight, time in station, and Space Station crew costs, for an in-kind total of $8 million. The content of this story is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of these agencies.