Transplant Nursing Pioneer Revisits Emory Transplant Center 45 Years Later

Millie Elliott, RN, MNNearly 45 years after she cared for Georgia’s first organ transplant recipient, Millie Elliott, 84, stepped through the doors of the Emory Transplant Center outpatient transplant clinic (OTC) for the first time to see how things have changed since her time at Emory. Elliott, who was Millie Burns at the time, worked at Emory University Hospital first as an obstetrics nurse, and then as head nurse of an NIH-sponsored clinical research unit at Emory from 1961 to 1967. She served as a dialysis nurse on this unit and may have been the Southeast’s first renal transplant coordinator.

During her recent visit to the transplant center, this former Cadet Nurse Corps nurse and World War II veteran regaled the transplant center staff and kidney transplant program director Dr. Thomas Pearson with her stories about the first transplant at Emory. Elliott recalled spending a lot of time researching medical sources to prepare herself and her nurses for that remarkable day, from learning about the best dialysis and sterilization practices to caring for patients in the OR and at the bedside. The first transplant patient was a 16-year-old boy with renal failure who received a donor kidney from his father.

Things were quite different in the world of kidney transplant back then. “We didn’t have outpatient dialysis centers in those days,” Elliott recalls. “Patients could only have dialysis in research centers, and we had to follow strict protocols. We had to notate each medication and chemically catalogue everything the patient ate and excreted. Not a drop of urine was lost in analysis.”

Dialysis patients would come to Emory regularly at 10-day intervals. An actual washing machine without the wringer and agitator served as the dialysis machine, and the hospital’s pharmacists prepared a special mix of chemicals to cleanse the blood. “We stirred the dry chemicals with our hands and mixed it with water,” she says. “The patient’s blood moved through an IV tube—the tube acted as a filter—into this chemical ‘bath’ and then into the machine. The process was very sterile.”

The first transplant patient stayed in an isolation room. “I suggested —and Dr. Garland Herndon [the research center's director] agreed— that we put a mat soaked with formaldehyde on the floor at the patient’s door, so that we didn’t track germs into his room on our shoes.”

After her time at the Emory Transplant Center, Elliott worked with Joy Bradley, a fellow Emory master’s program alumna, to apply for a grant to establish the largest associate’s degree nursing program in the U.S. at DeKalb College (now Perimeter College), and she later became its director. She also served as a federal government quality assurance nurse who helped develop regulations that established dialysis centers across the country. In addition, she created national nursing seminars and an educational film for physicians and nurses on maintaining infection control in dialysis centers.

Millie Elliott is a true example of the impact one person can have on medical innovation. Not only has she passed on this incredible nursing legacy to future generations—her daughter is a family nurse practitioner and her granddaughter is a pediatric ICU nurse—she also has helped pave the way for the nearly 3,500 kidney transplants the ETC has performed since the first one in 1966. We’re very proud of Millie Elliott’s efforts and the efforts of the Emory Transplant Center, a leading organ transplant program in the U.S.

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