How 'This American Life' Saved a Life

by DavalosMcCormack on June 24, 2010

I love ‘This American Life’. It’s one of the best radio shows ever. They manage to come up with stories that engage, amuse, entertain, fascinate and surprise you. They might even save your life!

A little while ago a woman named Maggie Ervin was walking around San Francisco listening to a podcast of ‘This American Life’. The show was titled “Matchmakers” and one of the segments was about a woman named Chaya who donated a kidney to a complete stranger. Something about the story touched Maggie and she says for the next few days she couldn’t get the story out of her mind. It kept coming back to her, time after time. So, she got in touch with Chaya and the two had several long conversations about donating a kidney, what was involved, was it painful or risky and so on. Eventually Maggie says she realized this was something she really wanted to do.


So, after a long series of tests – both physical and psychological – Maggie was approved as an altruistic donor and on Wednesday, June 23 she went in to surgery and gave up a part of herself, to a complete stranger. In itself that would have been a remarkable thing to do. But this was different. Maggie’s donation began a chain of transplants that could ultimately result in six people with end-stage kidney disease getting a new kidney, a second chance at life.

Here’s how it works. Maggie’s kidney was donated to a patient who had been on the waiting list for some time. Like a lot of other people on the list this patient, let’s call them A, had a loved one who had offered to donate their kidney but wasn’t a good match. In the past that would have been that. But thanks to a new software program – ironically called Matchmaker – it is now possible to match up several unmatched donor/recipient pairs with other unmatched donor/recipients. So Maggie’s kidney went to A. A’s donor had their kidney removed which went to patient B. B also had a loved one who wanted to donate but wasn’t a match for them, but they were a match for patient C. So B’s donor kidney went to C. And if things work out then C’s donor will start another chain, which could extend to another three patients.

Ripple Effects

And it doesn’t stop there. Because these patients now have new kidneys that means three other patients with end-stage kidney disease move higher up on the waiting list, and will hopefully get a new kidney from a cadaver soon. That’s no small thing because, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, ten people die every day waiting for a kidney transplant.

Think about it. Maggie’s gift not only changed the life of the person who got her kidney, it changed the life of every patient along the chain, all their families and friends. And it could change the lives of even more people she has never met.

Now all but one of these surgeries took place at the hospital where I work (the final kidney was flown from CPMC in San Francisco to Cornell to be transplanted there) so I got a chance to chat with Maggie the day before the surgery. I asked her why she did it. She was very matter of fact, almost humble about it. She just said it’s the right thing to do.

The right thing to do.

An extraordinary gift from an extraordinary woman.

And it all began because she was listening to ‘This American Life’. Who says radio is dead. In this case, it’s not only alive, it’s saving lives.

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