2018 Transplant and Organ Donation Calendar: Phylis Taft

Phylis Taft participated in one of the first medication trials for a new immunosuppressant that has helped more than 600,000 patients.


During her job as a receptionist in a medical clinic, Phylis Taft frequently used her lunch hour to take short naps in the break room. Once, one of her co-workers asked her how she could possibly sleep there with so much noise around her. “I said, ‘If you were as tired as I was, you would sleep anywhere, too,’” says Phylis.


Then and Now


Then: Patients suffered horrible side effects from anti-rejection medications.


Now: Our researchers are close to completely eliminating the need for immunosuppression.


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It was the late 1980s, and Phylis suffered from nephritis, a condition in which the kidneys become inflamed and eventually stop working, causing extreme fatigue. Though she had been ill since age 19, Phylis had been able to lead a full life until she was in her 40s — including giving birth to two healthy babies. But by the time she reached 45, it was clear she needed a kidney transplant. She got on the wait list at University Hospital in Madison and went on dialysis for eight months. She received the gift of life with a new kidney on August 23, 1990.


At the time, the primary immunosuppressant (anti-rejection) medications were prednisone, cyclosporine and imuran. Imuran was not the most effective immunosuppressant, and it had unpleasant and even dangerous life-long side effects: It caused breaks in the DNA, which led to skin lesions such as unsightly warts and skin cancers. Hans Sollinger, MD, PhD, transplant surgeon at UW Health, was testing a new immunosuppressant that could work better than imuran, but he needed patients to participate in the first trial. Phylis agreed to try the new medication. “I thought, why not?” says Phylis. “If I was able to help someone else, that would be good.”


While undergoing a kidney transplant has always been a risky procedure, in 1990 it was much more dangerous than it is today. Phylis wasn’t sure if a new kidney would work for her, but she figured a chance at a new life was better than no life at all. And sure enough, the new drug worked like a charm — she never experienced any major rejections. “I just felt good,” says Phylis. “So much better than I felt in years.”


Today, she’s 76 and more active than many 20-year-olds. She and her husband travel frequently — they went on a cruise to Norway last summer — and she loves to do needlework and create award-winning quilts. In the meantime, the drug she helped pioneer — called CellCept — has benefitted more than 600,000 patients worldwide. “I guess I can go down in history for that,” says Phylis. “At the time of my transplant, if you lived five to 10 years, you were doing good. But I’m still here. I don’t have a brilliant mind, but I have accomplished some very nice things in my life.”


Read more stories from the 2018 Transplant calendar