Dr. Frank Darras has a light meal on this kind of day. It has to be big enough to keep him going, but small enough to not to break his focus later on and add pressure to the knife of anticipation over his head as his patients wait for him in the presurgical area. This routine is familiar and has not changed significantly, even though Dr. Darras has practiced surgery for nearly 32 years.
“No matter what type of surgery I’m doing, big or small, I always play the operation out in my head like a video tape,” said Darras in his 19th floor office inside the Health Sciences Center. “I play out the steps of what I am going to do, how I am going to do it and always with the thought of what I would do if something goes wrong.”
Dr. Darras is an older man with a tall and slightly bent frame and dark brown eyes the color of freshly brewed coffee. They look fatigued but attentive. He has handled well over 1000 kidneys and is known for providing transplants for patients who have a history of kidney failure.
Dr. Darras was part of a kidney swap last month that involved synchronizing several operations between patients in three different states. This kind of operation was a first for Dr. Darras and was Long Island’s first multi-medical center kidney swap.
Tom Danz, 57, an East Islip resident who gave one of his kidneys during the swap to his wife, who has been in a battle with kidney cancer, waited for Dr. Darras inside of the holding room. Tom hoped to give his kidney directly to his wife, but previous tests showed that her antibodies would reject his kidney.
Stony Brook University Hospital is part of an organ-exchange program overseen by the United Network for Organ Sharing, or UNOS, according to Dawn Francisquini, Transplant Senior Specialist. When people like Tom Danz are not able to be a biological match for someone, a UNOS database can help arrange transplants in multiple states.
On the day of the transplant, Angela Danz’s new kidney broke through the clog of rush hour, after having traveled from Minneapolis, and arrived in its final destination in one piece. Everything went as planned, and Angela’s new kidney began to work in five minutes, according to Dr. Darras.
“The kidney was exactly as advertised,” said Dr. Darras. “The whole team had this feeling of overwhelming satisfaction because there was so much that went into this one transplant and everything went as planned. It was like clockwork.”
Robert Story, 42, is a Selden resident who was diagnosed with end-stage kidney disease when he was just 22 years old.
Before Story met Dr. Darras and received his fourth kidney transplant, he was undergoing dialysis three times a week for three and half hours. He underwent his first kidney transplant the next year, but it failed, forcing him to return to the dialysis machine. This went on for three years until he put himself on the Stony Brook University Hospital transplant list.
“I remember meeting with Dr. Darras back then,” Story began. “He was very positive about me getting a kidney, but also told me it was hard to find one because I had three previous transplants and my antibodies were hard to find a match with.”
Even though Dr. Darras has saved Story’s life, as well as the lives of a 14-month-old baby who had to receive a kidney from an adult and the lives of many other patients, he still feels a hint of recurring nervousness that is common before a surgery, he says. The job remains important to him, and he does not take it lightly.
“I always think of the operating room as the sanctuary where things have to go well, Dr. Darras said. “I put myself in a state of quiet focus. Like a pitcher before a big game, or a quarterback before the Super Bowl.”
Dr. Darras would know a thing or two about what races through a pitcher’s head before a big game. He did not plan on becoming a kidney transplant surgeon. “Growing up, I always wanted to be a baseball player, so when people ask me why I became a doctor, I always tell them it was because I couldn’t throw a curveball,” Dr. Darras said, with a laugh.
Dr. Darras comes from a very large Greek family in Chicago, Illinois.
“You know that movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding? Well, to me it’s not a movie, it’s a documentary,” he says with a smirk on his face.
When Dr. Darras expressed his interest in kidney transplant, his family did not understand why he had picked that route.
“They think of medicine as either surgery or primary care. Transplant was not really something on their radar,” Darras said.
Dr. Darras had lived in Illinois for 32 years before he found an opportunity at Stony Brook. By this time he was married and had three children. He says that Stony Brook won him over because it offered him a greater chance to teach residents, which he was very interested in at the time.
Finding the right donor is the majority of his professional struggle, Dr. Darras explains.
“When we see our patients, many of them have already started dialysis because they had kidney failure and are uremic (have abnormally high amounts of waste products in the blood),” he said. “So when they come to us, they have the option of picking a kidney from our list or choose to be on a waiting list for an unknown donor from around the country.”
The waiting lists for kidney donors can be as long as six to seven years.
“Not everyone has a potential donor and some of these things run in families. They might have blood pressure, diabetes or kidney failure,” Dr. Darras explained.
Another issue Dr. Darras has to deal with is the donor’s family agreeing with donating a fully functioning kidney as an act of kindness. Waitlists are also long because New York has a low percentage of people who sign up to donate their organs after they pass away, according to Francisquini.
Dr. Darras has been at the forefront of Stony Brook’s effort to train people how to speak to others about organ donation and signing up to be on the donor registry, according to Francisquini. One of Stony Brook’s latest efforts includes last October’s Organ Donor Enrollment Day where Stony Brook and many other facilities around Long Island got over 600 people to sign the registry.
“He’s there, actively enrolling people, advocating for the cause and right on the front lines,” says Francisquini about Dr. Darras’ involvement in organ donation awareness. “He doesn’t let us do the dirty work.”
Peter Androvich, 59, went on dialysis in 2006. He added himself to a long list of transplants at the University of California, Los Angeles, but eventually made his way back to Long Island. He was not able to find a matching kidney until he met Dr. Darras and now regards him as his savior.
“This guy is like a god to me,” Androvich said. “I met Dr. Darras and he said, ‘I can transplant you, I can do anything.’ Which he did, and I got a kidney six months ago.”
Dr. Darras sits next to a long list of transplant operations that Stony Brook Medicine has worked on since 2004.
There have been 22 kidney transplant operations so far this year and they average to about 75 every year.
The papers are slightly warped and add to the convoluted environment inside the office where he has spent long nights working and planning out his moves.
The list on his wall is shorter than the list for a kidney.
“The donors are the heroes of the whole process,” he says matter-of-factly. “No matter how hard we work, it doesn’t happen without them.”