By Lisa Clough ’84
Sept. 20, 2019

Editor’s note: Lisa Clough, M.S. Ed., CHES, is a 1984 graduate of the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism, and has a master’s degree in Health Promotion and Health Education from Virginia Tech. Her career in health communications has included work on award winning public health education campaigns in aging, mental health, women’s health and cardiology. Currently, as the director of media relations and corporate communications at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, Clough leads a media team that tells the stories of medical innovation, thought leadership and patient successes for the state’s leading academic medical center, and was the communications lead for the University of Maryland Medical Center on the event shared below, which received national media coverage and is the subject of Terp Magazine‘s fall cover story.

In 1954 after 20 years of pioneering attempts, Joseph E. Murray and his colleagues at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston performed the first truly successful kidney transplant. That milestone was the first long-term successful kidney transplant, and for his efforts, Murray was honored with the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1990.

The University of Maryland has now added yet another historic medical — and engineering — milestone for kidney transplants. In the predawn darkness of April 19, 2019, in a first-ever advance in human medicine and transplantation, an unmanned aircraft delivered a donor kidney to surgeons for successful transplantation in a patient with kidney failure

Dr. Joseph Scalea, a transplant physician and researcher at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM), and practicing at the world renowned University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) transplant program in Baltimore, initiated a partnership with aviation and engineering experts at the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Test Site, part of the A. James Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park, to develop the technology to successfully complete this landmark, 2.8 mile, 9.52 minute flight.

After three years in development and planning, the mission proved to be extremely complex, involving collaboration with many organizations including The Living Legacy Foundation of Maryland (The LLF), a non-profit organ procurement organization. 

The communication teams at UMMC recognized early on the world-wide media potential of such an historic event.

To document this milestone and plan the anticipated international visibility, the media team from UMMC and UMSOM strategically planned an approach and developed of the assets to ensure that media coverage was compelling and told the story of life-saving innovation and thought leadership — hallmarks of all three lead organizations.

The planning: Our team of dedicated and strategic communications professionals worked for six months to plan and capture the event for worldwide audiences.  The multidisciplinary communications team created a strategy that:

  • communicated the significance of the event
  • documented this compelling visual story in a way that supported the contributions involved in the planning, research and execution of the event
  • showcased the key players and their organizations as thought leaders and innovators in an industry experiencing challenges and barriers to more efficient and effective organ delivery

Go time: At 1 a.m on April 19, the excitement was palpable. Video crews were stationed at take-off and landing sites to document the journey. A Go-Pro was placed on the drone itself to capture flight video and photos. Teams of engineers, medical researchers, physicians, and of course communications staff, were stationed at both take-off and landing locations. On a crystal clear night we watched the drone lift off and fly through the Baltimore night sky to a perfect landing on the helipad at R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma, University of Maryland. The transport container vital signs were checked. The organ was viable. The container was quickly removed from the drone and shuttled to the blood bank. The organ was prepared for transplant and at 7 a.m. that same morning, the kidney was successfully transplanted into a 44 year-old woman who had been on dialysis for eight years.

Sharing the story: A week later, we held a press conference that showcased not only this engineering and medical feat, but the dedication of a team of colleagues who were determined to advance both medicine and engineering. The event received world-wide media coverage that continues today.

Making history: In our profession, we are accustomed to being on the forefront of inspiring moments, once-in-a-lifetime events, pioneering discovery, and first-of-a-kind missions. And it never gets old.

Lisa Clough ’84’s communications strategy helped land the University of Maryland Medical Center’s story in The New York Times and elsewhere.