Frequently when an individual passes away, “hero,” “champion,” or “leader” are used to describe him or her, when in fact he or she may not have been anymore influential than most of us. However, former NKF President, George Schreiner, who passed away in April after an illustrious career, was truly a pioneer in nephrology, capped by his leadership in the development of modern dialysis to treat patients with irreversible kidney failure. Schreiner was a giant, helping advance dialysis from an experimental therapy to the standard form of treatment that we know it as today. Even he could not have imagined 50 years ago how hemodialysis would evolve into a routine treatment, saving millions of lives in the process.
George Schreiner was more than a doctor. He was a researcher, a teacher of countless medical students, a patient advocate, and a physician with a bedside manner second to none. He approached every role in his life with equal zeal and zest, regardless of the requirements and time commitment involved.
Schreiner left the Walter Reed Army Medical Center to establish the nephrology department at Georgetown University in the 1950s. He was inspired by the fact that trench nephritis was a leading cause of death among troops during World War II. This passion to develop a greater understanding of the kidney and its ailments helped him in his many “firsts,” including the first nephrologist to dialyze an infant less than one year of age. Schreiner also performed every kidney biopsy at the National Institutes of Health for more than two decades.
Schreiner did not leave his commitment to kidney disease treatment in the laboratory, classroom, or examining room. He was a powerful patient advocate, a “lobbyist” if you will in the positive sense. Hemodialysis technology was surpassing the public and private sectors’ abilities to meet demand. “Life or death” committees were literally deciding which few patients would qualify for sustaining treatments and who would not be so fortunate and would soon perish. Local communities and hospitals tried to help their fellow citizens, but the nephrology community realized piecemeal efforts would not suffice. Schreiner sprung to action to provide his most significant role to kidney patients. Together with the NKF’s advocacy efforts, he convinced Congress to enact legislation to provide Medicare coverage to chronic kidney failure patients regardless of their age. Most nephrology observers are aware that the final approval for the Social Security amendments occurred shortly after a patient performed dialysis in front of the House Ways and Means Committee to illustrate and publicize the need for dialysis coverage, but it was Schreiner’s countless appearances in Congress to testify or meet with legislators that set the stage for the remarkable turn of events.
The presidencies of the National Kidney Foundation, American Society of Nephrology, and International Society of Nephrology were among the many leadership roles Schreiner filled during his career, never hesitating to accept additional responsibilities to assist kidney professionals and kidney patients. He also served as editor-in-chief of various scientific journals. In addition, he helped develop the National Donor Card and build support for the passage of the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act.
To his professional colleagues, his students and his patients, George Schreiner was a role model bar none. Every individual and family that has ever been impacted by chronic kidney disease owes him a tremendous debt of gratitude for his lifelong commitment and efforts.
Mr. Zimmerman is the vice-president of government relations for the National Kidney Foundation in Washington, D.C.