Dr. John Colonna can still clearly remember the first time he watched a newly-transplanted kidney pink up with blood and begin to produce urine inside another body.
Then a third-year student at Medical College of Virginia, Dr. Colonna had already decided to specialize in general surgery. That moment in the operating room more than three decades ago, part of a two-week rotation with the hospital’s kidney transplant service, would reshape his career.
“It was just amazing to see,” Dr. Colonna says. “These surgeries are not just about transplanting an organ, they’re about transforming a life. You can take some of the sickest people around, renal failure patients, and turn them around very quickly.”
Since arriving in Norfolk in 2002, Dr. Colonna has performed well upward of 1,000 kidney transplants as Surgical Director of the Renal & Pancreas Transplant Program at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital. Last year alone, the program handled 101 kidney transplants, along with seven combined pancreas-kidney transplants. Dr. Colonna performed the first pancreas transplant in Hampton Roads in 2008.
Dr. Colonna also serves as Surgical Director of the Renal Transplant Program at Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters, where he handles five to 10 pediatric cases a year. Until about five years ago, he was essentially the only surgeon for both programs, leaving him on 24-hour call for his patients with renal failure and advanced diabetes being admitted for transplant. “That’s part of the job,” he says, “and I love my job.”
The continuing emergence of more effective immunosuppressants has greatly improved transplant outcomes and patient experience, notes Dr. Colonna, also an Associate Clinical Professor of Surgery and Urology at Eastern Virginia Medical School. Drugs to prevent and treat organ rejection with less toxicity have spared many patients from infections and other post-surgical complications as they move beyond the grueling grind of dialysis.
“More than 95 percent of kidneys are functioning well after a year, and more than 90 percent after three years,” Dr. Colonna says. “The average patient in renal failure will live twice as long with a transplant as compared to with dialysis. The difference in both quality and quantity of life is enormous.”
More patients also are qualifying for transplant. One factor is new therapies that target hepatitis C and HIV infections; another is a recent adjustment to the national kidney allocation system to benefit people who once endured long waits for an organ. That includes a significant number of minority patients on the transplant list in Hampton Roads.
Sentara’s program partners with the National Kidney Registry, which connects donors and recipients across the country. “It provides a much better opportunity to find matches for the toughest cases, even people who have antibodies to virtually 99 percent of donor kidneys,” Dr. Colonna says. “In many cases, we don’t have to try to make kidneys artificially compatible via medications.” Donor exchange programs also can turn a single kidney into 30 or more transplants, he adds.
Dr. Colonna enjoys working with a multidisciplinary team of outstanding nurses and specialists on each transplant, from nephrologists to nutritionists, as well as keeping in touch with patients over time. He still receives Christmas cards from families he met 20-plus years ago. “Unlike many types of surgeons who don’t see a patient again unless there’s a complication, I have the chance to really get to know people,” he says.
Born in Germany into an Army family, Dr. Colonna wanted to be a doctor by the time he was in high school in Springfield, Va. His mother went to nursing school later in life and frequently came home with stories about helping patients. As a teenager, Dr. Colonna also severed a tendon in a finger while working for a moving company, when the hood of a van crashed down on it. “I ended up needing plastic surgery, and I found the whole process fascinating,” he recalls.
Dr. Colonna studied for a degree in biology from Virginia Military Institute before earning his medical degree at MCV. He spent the next nine years at the University of California, Los Angeles, completing a general surgery residency, a two-year research fellowship in liver transplantation and a two-year clinical fellowship in liver transplantation.
From 1992 to 1998, Dr. Colonna served as Director of the Liver Transplant Program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he also transplanted kidneys. He then became Director of Liver Transplantation & Hepatobiliary surgery at the University of Maryland Medical System in Baltimore, a busy program that handled highly complex cases.
In 2002, Dr. Colonna and his wife jumped at the chance to relocate to Norfolk. “We had always loved it here when we visited, and Virginia Beach was THE place to go in high school,” he notes. A father of five and grandfather of five, he enjoys boating, running and playing with his young grandkids.
A Diplomate of the American Board of Surgery and member of the American Society of Transplant Surgeons, Dr. Colonna has authored or co-authored numerous manuscripts on liver, kidney and pancreas transplantation, as well as hemoaccess intervention. Not surprisingly, he’s also a champion of organ donation from cadaver and living donors, including non-directed donations.
As a professor, Dr. Colonna likes to operate alongside general surgery and urology residents from EVMS and Naval Medical Center Portsmouth whenever possible. After all, he was once that awed student witnessing a kidney spring back to life.
“That opportunity changed my life,” he says. “I want to give them the same glimpse into the world of transplant surgery.”