Wade Washington was just 15 years old when he got a phone call that changed his life: He was going to receive a kidney transplant.
At birth, Washington was diagnosed with bilateral cystic kidney disease, a genetic disorder that caused one kidney not to function properly and prevented the other one from growing. For the first decade or so of his life, he could feel the symptoms of the disease, but they were mostly manageable.
“When I was younger, I wasn’t in as critical of a state as when I began dialysis,” says Washington. Despite facing symptoms like extreme fatigue and gout, he played football (wearing special kidney-protecting padding) and performed with the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra as a cellist. “But as I got into high school,” he says, “that’s when I really felt the effects of kidney disease.”
Washington’s doctor told him that his kidneys were at only 11 percent functionality. Less than 25 percent means serious problems, and below 15 percent is considered kidney failure.
Washington began dialysis not long after, and gradually he began spending more and more time at each dialysis treatment. About a year into treatment, he lost consciousness during one of his appointments. “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 as they wait to receive a new kidney.
A few months later, Washington’s family received a call from Seattle Children’s Hospital notifying them that he was second in line for a kidney. “It wasn’t a guarantee, but it was something,” he says. “Then the next morning, I got the phone call that I was now the primary recipient.” It turned out the person ahead of him hadn’t been a match.
“I was so excited, but at the same time, I had this realization that this other person wouldn’t be getting a kidney today,” Washington says. “I realized that it’s not just me in my bubble, and it wasn’t really fair that I got the kidney and they didn’t.”
Washington resolved to pursue a career where he could change that outcome. His decision was further 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.’”
Now a sophomore at the UW, Washington is thriving — and he’s getting closer to his goal of becoming a transplant surgeon.
The summer before his freshman year, Washington took part in the GenOM Project, which pairs incoming freshmen from underrepresented communities with a lab on campus. As a result of his medical history and career goals, Washington was paired with ISCRM’s Edward Kelly’s lab at the School of Pharmacy. He liked the work so much that he’s still a researcher on the team today, working with a device called kidney-on-a-chip.
Kidney-on-a-chip houses live kidney cells that can model the functions of a real human kidney, creating a unique opportunity for kidney disease research. 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.*
In his role on the team, Washington uses the chip to test the effects of various medications on kidneys to determine which ones are safest.
The work strikes a personal chord. “I take drugs to keep my kidney going, and I took them a lot before my transplant,” Washington says. For people with chronic kidney disease, antibiotics are a double-edged sword: While they help combat infection after operations, some can actually damage the kidneys.
“It was my first step toward seeing the interdisciplinary nature of medicine,” he says of the research. “The whole idea of a drug being toxic to kidneys wasn’t something I’d really thought about before. I felt like it would make me a much better physician to have this knowledge.”
In 2017, Washington completed the Summer Health Professions Education Program for students of color pursuing careers in medicine. For six weeks, he took classes at the UW Medical Center, networked with physicians and explored the different places where a career in medicine could lead.
Despite the tough coursework and extracurricular pursuits of a pre-med student, it’s clear that nothing can hold Washington back from becoming a surgeon. And the fact that he’s overcome so much — that his own kidney transplant made it possible for him to reach this point — makes him even more thankful to be on that path.
“I’ve been really fortunate to not have any rough spots since my transplant, and I’m very grateful that I’ve made it here,” Washington says. “I’ve learned how to deal constructively with everything that I’ve gone through, and I’ve gained so much along the way.”
* 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.