From Sun Magazine: 'Genius' pair rewrite rules of organ transplants, among other interests

With unassuming brilliance, Dorry Segev, Sommer Gentry share passions, save lives

  • Dorry Segev, left, and Sommer Gentry, practice swing dancing in their dance studio. Their four-level Canton rowhouse is a haven for their varied interests in music, dancing, and entertaining, as well as their academic research.
Dorry Segev, left, and Sommer Gentry, practice swing dancing… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun…)
November 14, 2012|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

Think of Dorry Segev and Sommer Gentry as intellectual magpies.

The glittery ideas they filch from fields as diverse as swing dancing, systems analysis, water skiing and medicine seemingly have little in common. But Segev and Gentry weave them together into a strong yet flexible structure designed to protect fragile lives.

Segev, 41, is a transplant surgeon at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, a pianist who studied at Juilliard and a former computer prodigy. Gentry, 35, an assistant mathematics professor at the Naval Academy, was a doctoral student when she caught the public's attention by designing a dancing robot.

In addition, the couple are champion swing dancers and avid slalom water skiers.

"I try to do something every day that I'm not good at," Segev says. "I don't want to go through life only practicing things I've already learned how to do. I embrace the process of improvement."

The two are poised to influence the nation's public health policy — and for the second time in seven years. They recently finished testing a formula that seeks to ensure that sick people in need of livers have equal access to donated organs, regardless of where in the U.S. they live.

By the fall of 2013, the Organ Transplantation Procurement Network — the governing body for the nation's transplant distribution system — is expected to decide whether to adopt Segev and Gentry's formula nationwide.

Experts say the liver algorithm has the potential to be as significant as the couple's 2005 breakthrough, when they devised a mathematical equation that exponentially increased the number of donors who can be matched with patients awaiting kidney transplants. In the past seven years, that discovery has either saved or dramatically improved thousands of lives throughout the U.S.

John Roberts, president of the Richmond, Va.-based National Network for Organ Sharing, is enthusiastic about the couple's work.

"Dorry and Sommer are superstars," Roberts says. "Both of them are in the genius category. What they're doing is very, very important. It probably isn't fair that your risk today of dying while you're on the liver transplant list varies by your ZIP code."

In person, Segev and Gentry are friendly and unassuming, even corny. New acquaintances are often flabbergasted to learn of their accomplishments.

For instance, the couple's kidney algorithm — which, like their liver formula, was devised in their spare time — inspired an episode of the CBS show "Numb3rs" and was the basis for an act of Congress.

Oh, and they've also placed fifth for three different years in the American Lindy Hop Championships, and in 2002 won the United Kingdom title.

"Dorry and Sommer are very accomplished at pretty much everything they do," says their friend Nina Gilkenson, co-owner of Mobtown Ballroom, the swing dance club that Segev started.

"They dance with everyone, especially Sommer. Dorry speaks in funny voices, and for at least 30 percent of the evening, they're making silly jokes. When people find out what they do for a living, they're like, 'What? Really?' "

The couple's Canton rowhouse reflects their idiosyncratic lifestyle.

They don't own a television. But there are a computer and a stereo in practically every room. Heating, cooling and lights are regulated by a computer system Segev designed. His desk is hoisted several feet above a treadmill.

But the piece de resistance is the ballroom, with gleaming cherry floors and light streaming from a large, half-moon window.

During a whirl around the floor, Segev and Gentry spin faster and faster around each other. Sometimes she is the nucleus around which his electron revolves, and sometimes it is the other way around. They twirl away, then return to orbit.

"I decide what we'll do and how we'll interact with the music," Segev says, "and she decides what the picture will look like."

Innovative minds

A similar division of labor marks their medical collaborations: He poses the problem, she solves it and he trouble-shoots the result.

"What's unusual about Dorry and Sommer is that they're greater together than each is individually," says Dr. Robert Montgomery, director of the Johns Hopkins Comprehensive Transplant Center and Segev's boss. "They're a combination that's tough to beat. They come up with very innovative approaches that make a huge difference in patients' lives."

In 2005, Segev was worrying about the roughly one-third of patients needing new kidneys who aren't medically compatible with a family member.

Sometimes, doctors find a second donor whose tissues don't match those of the intended recipient, but are compatible with those of the first patient — and vice-versa. A surgical round-robin then takes place in which both patients get kidneys from a stranger. But those exchanges, some of which involved a large group of patients and donors, were limited to surgeries performed in the same hospital.

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