MIAMI (CBS4) – This year the Miami Transplant Institute at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center is celebrating four decades of life-saving organ and tissue transplants.

The program, regularly recognized for its excellence in clinical care and high success rates, was honored in 2010 for three of its transplantation programs which received national recognition for extraordinary performance from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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On Monday, several people who had life saving transplant operations from MTI gathered at the hospital to join in the celebrations for 40 years of success.

Andrea Kessler, the program’s first kidney-pancreas transplant patient, has had her organs for 20 years.

“My life was different. I feel like a very new person having had these transplants,” said Kessler, “Made me stronger and made my family stronger.”

Kessler, a practicing attorney working in several legal areas including probate, trust, litigation and medical devices said the whole purpose of going through the transplant process was to get back her life.

“All of the recipients are part of our family, but those with the complications become the closest part because we have to live with them,” said UM/Jackson surgeon Dr. George Burke.

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“I’ve done great with the transplant,” said Mark Frye, “And everything is fine.”

Dr. Kathryn Smith, now a resident at UM/Jackson, said her first trip to the hospital was 11 years ago as a patient in need of a transplant. Smith underwent a multivisceral transplant in 1999 and is one of the longest living survivors of this rare procedure.

“I sort of always wanted to be a doctor, but actually this experience did, I guess, strengthen my desire to be a physician.”

Former UM football player Ron Walker, 54, had a heart transplant at UM/Jackson this past May and said it has changed his life.

“I can’t thank you enough because without you all, I wouldn’t be here today. I thank God for all of you. These people here (gesturing at the doctors) are now my new heroes. It was Michael Jordan and LeBron James, nothing against them guys, but when something happens to them, who are they going to turn to,” said Walker, “These people here.”

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More than half of all the reported multi-organ transplants in the world have been performed at the institute. One of the reasons for this is that MTI at UM/Jackson is the only Florida hospital to perform every type of organ transplant; more than 500 organ and tissue transplants each year.