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Nephrologist Robert Swenson, who helped early kidney-transplant patients, dies at 82

Swenson, a leader in the nephrology division at Stanford for decades, administered dialysis to some of the earliest patients awaiting kidney transplants.

- By Tracie White

Robert Swenson

Robert Swenson, MD, a nephrologist who played a pioneering role in the early days of kidney transplantation and dialysis at Stanford Medicine, died Feb. 12 in Palo Alto of complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 82.

As a research fellow at Stanford in the early 1960s, Swenson administered dialysis to some of the first patients awaiting kidney transplants. These were the early days of kidney transplantation and dialysis, when a diagnosis of kidney disease was often considered a death sentence.

Stanford’s kidney transplantation program was the first on the West Coast. In the spring 2000 issue of Stanford Medicine magazine, Swenson talked about the patients he cared for in the weeks leading up to their surgeries, administering dialysis as a bridge to help keep them alive.

“The initial recipients were a remarkable group of individuals,” said Swenson, an associate professor emeritus of medicine at the School of Medicine. “There was no precedent for the program, but they were highly intelligent and highly motivated. They didn’t have to be coaxed into anything in terms of their care. They knew the alternative really was unthinkable. It was death.”

Leader in dialysis care

For the next three decades, Swenson would remain a fixture of the nephrology division at Stanford, leading the way in quality clinical care for dialysis patients, teaching medical students and running the dialysis units at the university’s teaching hospitals. He retired in 1993. His friends and colleagues said he always remained a clinician first, his patients’ care his top priority.

“He was a great clinician, a very good doctor,” said his friend and colleague Rex Jamison, MD, professor emeritus of medicine. “As a doctor who takes care of patients in dialysis, you have to be a good all-around physician. Dialysis isn’t a cure. Patients are in a state of chronic illness and, as such, have many illnesses in many parts of their bodies — their heart and circulation, their bones, their joints. Not just their kidneys are affected.”

In 1972, Swenson became chief of the dialysis unit at what was then called the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Palo Alto. In 1981, he became medical director of Stanford’s Hemodialysis Center, and then finished his medical career as chief of staff at Livermore’s Veterans Administration Hospital, another teaching hospital of Stanford’s.

In 1989, he received Stanford’s Arthur Bloomfield Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Clinical Medicine.

Minnesota native

Born on April 19, 1933, in Brooten, Minnesota, Swenson graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1955 and earned a medical degree there in 1958. He met his future wife, Carol Conley, during his medical internship at Minneapolis General Hospital, where she was working as a medical technologist. They were married for 56 years.

“He wanted to be a doctor for the reason of helping the patient,” she said. “He was very much a people person, very caring, thoughtful.”

She added that even toward the end of his long, difficult battle with Parkinson’s disease, he remained upbeat and helpful, and kept his well-known sense of humor. “He would do whatever small task he could to help me,” she said. “The day before he died, though he hadn’t been able to speak, he softly whispered that he loved me.”

In addition to his wife, Swenson is survived by daughters Cynthia Swenson and Dana Raphaelson and four grandchildren.

A private burial was held.

Tax-deductible donations may be made in Swenson’s name to support the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke Morris K. Udall Centers for Excellence for Parkinson's Disease Research (NINDS, 31 Center Drive, Rm 8A34, NIH, Bethesda, MD 20892). 


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