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Florida Icon: Robert Metzger

In Galena, Ill., where I grew up, you either went to college to become a doctor or a lawyer or maybe an engineer — or you went to work at the John Deere factory or the Dubuque Packing Co. When I was in high school, I made up my mind that I would go into medicine.

We have about 58% of the population in Florida signed on to be organ donors, so getting people knowledgeable about organ donation has been, I think, fairly successful, but there is still a fair amount of resistance out there. We need more donors. The problem we have in organ transplantation is we don’t have enough organs.

I was a medical student assigned to a 16-year-old boy who had a kidney disease. He was dying, and the only place that was doing transplants at that point in time — this was 1963 — was at the University of Colorado, but it was difficult to get a patient enrolled. We tried to get the boy there, but he never got accepted. I sat with his parents while he passed, and I made up my mind that I was going to continue to learn as much I could about kidney diseases to help prevent that from happening again.

There was a 17-year-old girl who was on dialysis, and I took over her care. Her name was Rochelle Gibbons. She had a brother. We tested him, and he was compatible, an excellent match, and so we did the first kidney transplant at Florida Hospital in January of 1973. I cared for the patients before and after the transplant surgery, although with a few of the early transplants, I went into the operating room to make sure things were going OK.

My father pushed me. I was expected to get all A’s, and I was smart enough to do that. We had some excellent teachers back then who encouraged us not to stay in Galena, but to move on and go to college.

It was an exciting time. We were at the forefront of medicine. The patients were quite sick, and dialysis was still in its infancy. It kept people alive, but it was still six hours sitting in a chair as an outpatient and the last hour feeling pretty lousy. Dialysis was pretty miserable at that point in time — it has gotten better — and so when a patient got a transplant and did well and got off dialysis, it was an amazing feeling. The patients were so happy.

I’m very pro-mask, and I’m very pro-vaccination. I got vaccinated for COVID19 as soon as I could. I’ve actually gotten the third dose. I just walked into Walgreens and got it. I’m very upset with people who won’t get vaccinated. I think they’re putting a tremendous burden on our hospitals and our intensive care units.

The health care system we have now has to find some way to take care of the lower end and deliver health care there. Drugs are too expensive for a lot of people in the United States. I don’t know what the answer is. We have one of the best health care systems in the world, although we have a lot of people who can’t participate in it.

Florida’s growth is a little disturbing. We have people who want to make money off of land that I think needs to be kept the way it is. I’m kind of a pro-conservationist.

There are people who will be resistant to donation for a family member, but their family member signed a legal agreement that they wanted to be a donor, and so we go ahead with the donation. Initially, they’re objecting to it, but when they get the final results of other people surviving and doing well, they become supporters of organ donation. That’s always gratifying, when you turn somebody around from anti-donation to pro-donation.

I fell and broke my pelvis putting stuff away in our closet in the garage. I was laid up for several weeks, and I gained about 10 pounds because I didn’t stop eating when I should have — and I love wine. Then, when the pandemic hit and we were told to stay home, I gained more weight. I finally made up my mind about six weeks ago to lose weight, and I’ve lost about 20 pounds. I’ve tried to keep my calories under 1,200, and I’ve been able to do that pretty regularly, but I still get to have my wine and the foods that I want. Write down everything you eat during the day because if you have to write it down, then you might think about it and decide not to eat it.

Pig organ transplantation has always been, as long as I’ve been in transplantation, the answer, because pig organs are very similar in size to human organs. The problem is that pigs have things in them that prevent easy control of rejection, but using pig organs has been the goal of a number of researchers. They’re getting closer, but it’s not the answer yet. Hopefully, it will happen before I die.


Read more in Florida Trend's December issue.
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