Scientists Pull Off A 16-Way Kidney Swap

A year and a half ago, my mother had a kidney transplant. Undoubtedly, it was one of the scariest days of my life, but I’m certain my entire family would endure it again. To have my mom healthy and alive and to have received the gift of life from a complete stranger was a miracle. In the 19 months since my mom’s surgery, medicine has made leaps towards making sure any patient in need of a transplant will not die waiting for an organ. That latest advancement ended three days ago—when a 16-way kidney swap took place in four different hospitals across the country and saved eight lives. Still, the road to getting a transplant is never easy and, in my personal situation, it was a yearlong battle between science, my mom, and the donor waiting list. When my family learned that my mom had been diagnosed with kidney failure as a result of her diabetes, my mother refused to allow my sister or I to be tested to find out if either of us were a match for donation. In her motherly instinct, she didn’t want to affect our future health for her sake. But she did let my father get tested and he was a match. My parents rejoiced over how they really were meant to be together after the more than 25 years of marriage. But the doctors didn’t agree. My father’s health was questionable because he was overweight. Then and there his diet began. My father lost about 30 pounds, and doctors approved him to be her donor. But on the day the surgery was scheduled, the doctors changed their minds because they didn’t like what they saw in my father’s blood tests. They didn’t let the transplant go through, and said that my father’s health would be put at risk if he donated the kidney. My family was crushed.

By this point, my mom’s kidneys had deteriorated to nearly non-functional. She slept all the time, was too weak to walk more than a block, and her life was on the line. For most patients suffering from kidney failure, this is typically the point of going on dialysis. But my mom is not most patients. She is stubborn and refused to live a life confined to a hospital for several hours a day, multiple days a week. To our faces she said she would rather die. I’ll leave the details of how heart wrenching this was to experience for another day and flash forward to how the donor list prevented my mother from death.

Over the year that my father lost weight and was rejected as a donor and as my mom grew weaker, she was one of 80,000 or so people on the national waiting list for a kidney. From time to time, my parents would get a phone call about how a matching kidney was available—but always the kidneys they called about were “high risk.” Undergoing a risky procedure, with a high-risk organ wasn’t exactly ideal, so my parents passed up many “high risk” offers. After about a year on the list, early one morning, before the sun even rose, they received their first call for a “low risk” kidney, which was one of two kidneys, the first of which had already been successfully transplanted into a woman. The decision was made and, within hours, my mom was in the hospital undergoing the transplant. It was a success! She’s alive and well today, and it is all thanks to a 29-year-old man who died in a car accident and listed himself as an organ donor. A miracle.

Between June 15th and July 6th, a miracle of the same kind happened to eight different families. At four different hospitals, with eight selfless kidney donors and eight needy recipients, a 16-way kidney swap took place. A kidney swap is for those people who need kidneys and have family members willing to donate but are incompatible. Through a database, hospitals are able to make the matches between the willing donors and recipients. In this specific case, a chain was made starting with one self-sacrificing person prepared to donate a kidney with absolutely no ties, which flowed through seven more incompatible donors and ended with a final extra kidney placed in a recipient with no willing donor to continue the line.

The 16-person chain is a medical sensation but can also involve many complications. Had one person decided to back out, the chain would have been destroyed, since time is of the essence— kidneys must be transplanted within 36 hours. By 2010, the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) plans to have a database launched that will increase the amount of organ swapping that can take place, while at the same time limiting the swaps to two or three-ways. According to transplant surgeon Dr. Robert Montgomery, “If we were able to have all the patients in the country who have incompatible donors enter into a pool, then we could do an additional 1,500 transplants a year … That is a 25 percent increase over what we currently do.”

While this is obviously something to celebrate, it should not go without mentioning that 4,505 people on the waiting list for a kidney died last year. Hearing a statistic like that and knowing that my mom could have been one of those people, I took action and became an organ donor. Since The Frisky is all about taking action for what you believe in, I hope that if you’ve made it this far into the post, you’ll visit Donate Life and Organ Donor to learn more about becoming an organ donor. It really does save lives! [ABC News]