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Mayo program helps patients lose weight to become eligible for organ transplants

"Obesity does not have to be an automatic 'no' for transplant anymore."

ROCHESTER, Minn. — In photos, Wells Larsen almost looks like a different person. A picture from around 2017 captured him at his heaviest, around 350 lbs. Larsen is now down to 198, losing 105 of those pounds since March. 

But his reason for losing the weight goes beyond the usual. Larsen was born with a genetic disease called polycystic kidney disease. Both his mom and sister died from it and the family thinks his grandfather died from it too. 

Years later, Larsen found himself with drastically dropping kidney function and in need of a transplant.

"Once my kidney declined lowered [than] 30%, and it went down quickly, then [doctors said], 'Hey, we need your weight to get down,'" he said.

Dr. Ty Diwan, a transplant surgeon at the Mayo Clinic, says patients with a BMI that's too high often can't get a transplant. 

"It can make it technically difficult to do the surgery depending on weight," he said. "We know the risks surrounding the surgery are so much higher."

Credit: Mayo Clinic News Network
(Left) Wells Larsen at his heaviest weight, about 350 pounds, around 2017. (Right) Larsen in September 2021, after bariatric surgery and a kidney transplant.

For years, Dr. Diwan had been researching obesity and organ transplants. He is part of a program started about a year ago at Mayo, taking a streamlined approach to getting patients ready for transplant by working with them to lose weight.

"We started to integrate all the care," he said.

It's a holistic approach to transplant surgery. The team works with dieticians, endocrinologists, psychologists, and physical therapists to help a patient reach a BMI at which it is safe to transplant. 

"Obesity does not have to be an automatic 'no' for transplant anymore," Diwan said. 

For Wells, the process involved bariatric surgery, which accelerated his weight loss. He received his new kidney on September 9.

"What a difference the weight loss has made," he said. "What a difference the kidney transplant has made."

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