is 2 a.m. and transplant surgeon Dr. Scott
Gruber gets an urgent call. A kidney is available
The doctor has to move fast. He has only one
hour to locate his patient. If the patient is not medical-
ly ready for transplant or can't be found, the kidney is
passed on to the next person on the statewide waiting
But the wait for a kidney can range from two to five
years or more, depending on the patient's blood type,
says Dr. Gruber, professor and chief of transplant sur-
gery at Wayne State University and director of the
transplant program at Harper University Hospital in
the Detroit Medical Center.
After certifying over the phone that the organ is a
match for his patient, Dr. Gruber activates his team.
First, the transplant coordinator tracks down the
patient, one of 250 on the doctor's list, and determines
if he or she is medically fit.
"A kidney transplant does not just improve quality of
life," the doctor emphasizes. "It can prolong life corn-
pared with a patient remaining on dialysis."
An Orthodox Jew who lives in Southfield, Dr.
Gruber responds to the need for transplantation even
The shortage of available healthy kidneys for trans-
plant, however, makes his job daunting.
Still, in 2001, the first year Dr. Gruber headed
Harper's kidney transplant program, he and his staff
more than doubled the number of kidney transplants
at the hospital from 25 to 60.
Two factors led to the increase, Dr. Gruber says. His
group was more aggressive in accepting deceased donor
kidneys, and a new technique he implemented at the
hospital allows more living-donor kidney transplants.
With the introduction of laparoscopic donor
nephrectomy — Dr. Gruber calls it "the gold standard"
on how to remove a kidney from a living donor —
doctors can make a tiny incision just long enough for
the width of the kidney.
"People are now more willing to be living donors
because the pain is much less, the incision is much
smaller and the donor leaves the hospital much quick-
er," he says.
Aiming For Excellence
Dr. Gruber was brought on board to spearhead the
hospital's push to create a world-class transplant facility.
He recruited transplant surgeons Dr. Miguel S. West
of West Bloomfield, voted one of the top 100 African-
American doctors in the country by Black Enterprise
magazine, and Dr. Darla K. Granger of Farmington
Hills, the former transplant surgical director of both
the pancreas and hand transplant programs at the
University of Louisville. Three transplant nephrologists
and a support staff of 15-20 also are part of his team.
His work is considered so important that, even
though hospitals in Detroit are facing financial prob-
lems, Harper is raising money for an endowed chair
and a professorship for transplant surgery, for $1.5 mil-
lion and $1 million respectively, to ensure the continu-
ation of his work at Detroit Medical Center, Dr.
The hospital also is raising $3.1 million
for a complete renovation of the transplant
floor into a state-of-the-art facility.
Dr. David Fromm, professor and chair of
WSU's department of surgery, has complete
confidence that Dr. Gruber can accomplish
this mission. Dr. Fromm recruited him
from Houston, where Dr. Gruber was
director of the Houston Nerve and Hand
Transplant and Composite Tissue Allograft
"He is a tireless worker with a national
reputation who is extremely well organized
and has a clear progressive strategy to estab-
lish our program as a premier one," Dr.
What makes an outstanding facility?
"You need someone working at the cut-
ting edge of transplantation who's not only doing good
clinical work, but making advances in research," says
Dr. John S. Najarian, professor of surgery, Regents'
Professor Emeritus at University of Minnesota in
"Dr. Gruber and his group are doing that very well.
All are superb surgeons. The people in Detroit are very
lucky to have a transplant facility with that degree of
A pioneer in kidney transplants, Dr. Najarian did the
first kidney transplant in a diabetic patient in 1967. He
also trained Dr. Gruber and his two associates.
A New Birthday
Back in the hospital, once the kidney patient is found
and the organ is accepted, the race is on.
Within an hour, the patient is brought to the hospi-
tal and lab work begins.
Meanwhile, the kidney, flushed with organ preserva-
tion solution and packed in ice, is taken directly to the
Even when everything runs smoothly, Dr. Gruber
knows that in rare cases things can still go wrong.
Though he inspires confidence, he doesn't hide this
fact from his patients.
"Risks are involved," says Pat Cromer, 62, of Detroit,
one of the doctor's success stories. In her case, there was
high risk for rejection of the new kidney, Gruber says.
"Dr. Gruber explained to me before surgery that, at
my age, I had a 50-50 chance that the kidney wouldn't
be rejected. But he said, Td go for it,' and I did. Now I
feel like I have a new life; and I celebrate the day of my
surgery May 8, as my new birthday."
Before her surgery, Cromer spent four hours a day,
three days a week on a kidney machine. Now she is
free of dialysis.
"Diabetes is the number-one reason for doing kidney
transplants," Dr. Najarian says. "Fifty percent of all
Type 1 diabetes patients will lose their kidneys and
need a transplant or a new pancreas."
The kidney is the most transplanted organ, he says,
because we all have two and can give one away and
because it is the most common organ affected by dis-
ease — more kidneys fail than hearts or livers.
The four-hour kidney transplant surgery involves an
intricate dance between doctors and staff.
Often to speed things up, Dr. Gruber says, one doc-
tor will open up the patient while the other does
"bench work," cleaning the kidney to prepare it for
There is no book or map
Dr. Gruber's trans-
plant social worker,
to remind the doctor what
to do next. All transplant
received a kidney
surgeons have five years of
from her mother 10
general surgery and typical-
ly two more years of a
transplant fellowship, he
The highlight of the
operation, according to Dr. Gruber, comes when the
clamps are removed and the kidney re-fills with blood.
"There's a feeling of satisfaction," he says. "It's almost
like bringing the kidney back to life."
Though up since 2 a.m. for this surgery, Dr. Gruber
says adrenalin and the excitement of hands-on surgery
keep him wide awake.
His wife, Andrea, remembers one 24-hour period
when her husband had five back-to-back transplant
"He's very passionate about what he does," she says.
"And very devoted to his patients."
Life Of Devotion
Gruber discovered his passion for medicine at Johns
Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he was a bio-
engineering major. He eventually chose surgery,
intrigued by the direct contact with the patient, he
"You're really doing something that is directly
responsible for the patient getting better."
In college, he also met his future wife at the one
kosher dinning hall shared by his college and hers,
Goucher College, in Baltimore.
He says he was extremely active in the Jewish
Students Association, now Hillel. But he only fully
became modern Orthodox when he got married. They
have three children: Marisa, 13; Shoshana, 11; and
Dr. Gruber acknowledges that his profession is not a
typical one for an Orthodox Jew because it's not con-
ducive to being shomer Shabbos (Shabbat observant).
"But I have a parallel passion for math and science and
for Judaism," he says.
To meet the challenge of being Orthodox and prac-
ticing the specialty he loves, Dr. Gruber does things
like getting up at 5:30 a.m. on a Saturday to do rounds
at the hospital so he can be back home in time to walk