Joan and Janice Ottenbacher were always close as sisters. A lifesaving operation at University Hospital in 1964 made their bond extraordinary.
The 15-year-old identical twins were patients in the first human organ transplant in Michigan when Joan donated her kidney to Janice.
The procedures – to remove Joan’s right kidney and transplant it in Janice’s abdominal cavity – were carried out by a 16-member medical team led by C. Gardner Child, chair of the Department of Surgery, and Jeremiah Turcotte, who had completed his residency nine months earlier.
Janice Ottenbacher needed a new kidney after a February bout with pneumonia damaged her kidneys severely, sending her to University Hospital in critical condition. She remained hospitalized and dependent upon an artificial kidney to cleanse her blood until the March 31 transplant.
The world’s first successful kidney transplant involved identical twins in 1954 at what is now Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Human organ transplants were still in their infancy in the early 1960s and, in most cases, successful only between twins because of tissue compatibility. Today, with the refinement of anti-rejection drugs and advances in technology, organ transplants are an everyday reality.
Joan Ottenbacher did not hesitate to donate one of her kidneys to her sister. “I wanted to give that kidney so bad,” she said years later. “At one point, they thought she might not need it, and I was really upset.”
At the time, U-M surgeons said only 25 sets of identical twins worldwide had been involved in a kidney transplant.
The girls were sophomores at St. Augustine High School in Richmond, southwest of Port Huron, and shared a hospital room after their surgeries. Janice spent six weeks in the hospital, partly because she required a second operation to remove her two diseased kidneys.
The twins went on to become nurses, saying their care at U-M inspired them. They returned to Ann Arbor in 2014 for the 50th anniversary of their role in Michigan medical history.