Transplant reunion celebrates donors, survivors, and second chances


Born with cystic fibrosis, Neil Herskowitz didn't necessarily think marriage and travel were in his future. But after a double lung transplant, his life changed in ways he could never imagine.

The dinner conversation at table 35 is a bit atypical. Everyone’s talking about the magical powers of the human liver to regenerate. Table 19 is swapping stories about infusion sessions and anti-rejection meds. And table 3 is laughing. Hard.

Must be the pink “Can’t we all just get a lung” T-shirt one of the folks is wearing under her jacket.

Most of the 200 diners, gathered 14 stories above Dallas’ Medical District in the T. Boone Pickens Biomedical Building, don’t really know each other. But there are no strangers at the UT Southwestern Transplant Reunion.

The annual celebration honors organ donors, family, friends, and “transplant warriors.” Good luck telling them apart, though. Everyone looks so healthy, so happy.

The gift of life tends to do that to a person.

Dr. Marilyn Richardson
Amber Patterson donated a portion of her liver to her father, Keith Brown. They celebrated a year post-transplant at the reunion.

“I never expected to be whole again, but I am,” says keynote speaker Marilyn Richardson, M.D., a former surgeon and reproductive endocrinologist who received a double-lung transplant at UT Southwestern. “Today, at age 74, I play tennis and pickleball, and I play piano every day again, which is something I love. That’s all thanks to some of the finest transplant doctors and nurses in the world. And a generous donor.

“So, I try to do everything I can to express my gratitude and make somebody’s day,” says Dr. Richardson, who punctuates her speech with: “Power to the thrivers!”

Hers is one of many inspiring stories in the room tonight: One man who received a heart transplant at UTSW more than two decades ago; another who got a kidney in January. Daughters who became living donors, and sons who get to grow up with their dads because a stranger checked the organ donor box on their driver’s license.

'All those cliches are true'

In a video that plays on monitors in the dining room, Neil Herskowitz describes the hopelessness he felt when he couldn’t walk from the couch to the bathroom without gasping for breath. "It seemed like my life really wasn’t worth living, and there was nothing I could do to get away from it or take a break,” he says.

Then the boy who was born with cystic fibrosis was referred to UT Southwestern as a man with less than 20% lung capacity. A double-lung transplant gave him a new outlook on life.

Scott Bennett, Marilyn Richardson
Marilyn Richardson, M.D., (right) is a former surgeon who received a double-lung transplant at UTSW. She was the featured speaker at the Transplant Reunion, which was hosted by Scott Bennett, Associate Vice President of Solid Organ Transplant.

“It’s a blessing that I never thought would be in the cards for me,” he says. “I’m able to do things I never was. Explore places I never could. All those cliches are true. The food tastes better. The air smells fresher. I am grateful every day to the donor for making that choice.”

Heads nod in agreement. Gentle applause fills the room.

At table 16, a daughter and kidney donor hugs her mom because she’s here. Alive. Making the most of her second chance.

So is the dad at table 31 who got 60% of his daughter’s liver. He gets to play with his grandkids, be there for graduations, and go back to the job he loves.

“The stories, no matter how many you hear, never get old,” said Scott Bennett, Associate Vice President of Solid Organ Transplant at UT Southwestern, who has spent nearly 15 years as a transplant program administrator. With a nod to the upcoming eclipse, he put the evening in perspective:

“Four minutes of temporary totality hardly compares to the totality of the heroism of the choice of becoming an organ donor … and the totality of the commitment from patients, caregivers, friends, and family to support that heroic gift of life.”

Survivors and their support systems head home slowly after the event, and a few linger to spend extra time with their doctors and transplant coordinators. They share wedding photos and talk about milestones and adventures to come.

“UT Southwestern is like a family to me,” said Mr. Herskowitz, echoing a sentiment expressed at nearly every table on a memorable Friday evening in April.

Because the transplant reunion really is a family reunion.

For more information about UT Southwestern's transplant program and how to sign up to be an organ donor with Donate Life or through your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), please visit our transplant website.

Setting the highest standards

In 2023, for the fourth consecutive year, UT Southwestern performed more transplants than any other program in North Texas program. Additionally, UTSW's transplant team has gained a reputation for innovations and outcomes that are among the best in the country.

Learn more

More in: Transplant