A Belated Explanation and an Interconnected Possibility by Amy Waterman, Ph.D.

Alexis Bobu Transplant News

At the end of June, I will have worked at Houston Methodist Hospital and J.C. Walter Jr. Transplant Center for nine months as Director of Patient Engagement, Diversity, and Education. A common question that I continue to hear is, “Why did you move from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and the Terasaki institute for Biomedical Innovation (TIBI) to Houston, Texas?” Here is my belated explanation.

It is true that my professional experience working at UCLA was transformational. If you want to work at an academic medical center where healthcare professionals are strategic, hustling, and pressing for diversity and access to health in the way that only people from California can, work at UCLA. In my time there, I learned to stand for patients and work extremely hard. I also learned how to be a very successful leader: My research productivity tripled, I spoke at the White House about the need to ensure access to transplantation, and I worked with the National Kidney Registry to expand research being published about paired kidney donation. I created new opportunities to reach more transplant patients: I collaborated with Kaiser Permanente Southern California to learn how to systematize care so that patients can prevent kidney failure and pursue transplantation earlier, and, by working with patients and living donors directly, I built innovations like the Living Donation Storytelling Project to amplify the patient voice (www.explorelivingdonation.org).

All these opportunities led to my appointment as Full Professor at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, working with other inspiring faculty who are transforming healthcare and education at national and international levels. Colleagues like Drs. Clarence Braddock, Vice Dean of Education; Keith Norris, Executive Vice Chair, Department of Medicine for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion; and Susanne Nicholas, President of the Southern California National Kidney Foundation (NKF) Medical Advisory Board.  Many Internal Medicine Division Chiefs, most importantly Drs. Ira Kurtz and Carol Mangione, served as faculty mentors supporting my success.

Outside of academia, I helped influencers like Ms. Tenaya Wallace, Chief Operating Officer of Crowd Advocacy, affect the accuracy of television portrayals of transplantation so that millions of people could learn about living donation from fictionized series accurately. I partnered with the Mendez National Institute of Transplantation Foundation to assess the impact of edutainment television programs on better kidney disease management.  I helped patient leaders like Mr. Jim Gleason, President of the Transplant Recipients International Organization, create educational resources like the Post-Transplant Cancer Website. Finally, as the Deputy Director of TIBI, I had a bird’s-eye view to be able to watch another innovator, Dr. Ali Khademhosseini, push the boundaries of what is possible in research and healthcare every day.

Fundamentally, what living in Los Angeles, a city whose millions share in the excitement of the possibility of the “Next Great Idea,” showed me was how it was done. It also showed me what could be possible in other cities.

Picture a map of the routes that United Airlines flies around the United States: a map of the United States with small cities interconnected by lines. When you’re on an airplane, they often give you a picture of this route on your napkin, along with your choice of beverage. That’s what the field of transplantation looks like, too: an interconnected web of healthcare leaders, innovators, hospitals, organizations, and research programs working in varying cities and countries doing what they can to make transplant care better.

Up to this point, I’ve had difficulty saying, in a way that people could understand, that: “I didn’t really leave. I just joined a different part of the route, now leaving from the city of Houston.” My permanent collaborator, Dr. R.J. Briggs, a RAND Economist, and my wonderful husband, joined me in the adventure and helped make it possible.  I still collaborate weekly with UCLA researchers and many others in cities and healthcare organizations all over the world. My home base just changed.

I changed it so that I could go deeper into one specific area. During the pandemic, watching my immunocompromised kidney and transplant patient community stay separated from others for two years and die at greater rates changed me. Now, I just want to focus on listening to what patients truly need, testing the effectiveness of innovations within a diverse healthcare system, and sharing any lessons learned. In doing so, I want to be as loving as I can, personally and professionally.

Fast-forward to 2022.  I am a senior leader in transplantation now.  I have to wear reading glasses, which definitely proves it!  I live in Houston, a city with almost equal proportions of White, African-American, Hispanic, and other racial/ethnic communities.  I love that! I have the privilege to work at J.C. Walter Transplant Center, Jr. which is another one of the leading and largest transplant centers in the US.  I am honored by the trust that both Dr. Osama Gaber, the Chairman of the Department of Surgery; and Dr. Mark Ghobrial, Director of the Transplant Center, have placed in me to build my vision for a Patient Engagement Research Collaborative. Along with my research team, we continue to be compassionate and productive in the work we do.  If you feel moved to build something new, feel free to reach out. We are hiring, and we are collaborating.

Yes, Houston has humidity and mosquitoes, unlike California. There are also warm, Southern people, affordable homes, and air-conditioning.  You win some, you lose some.

Thank you for your passion, your curiosity, and your heart. I’m still here innovating for patients and all is well.