Give a Gift – Change a Life

by admin on April 5, 2011

Kidney transplant surgery

A couple of days ago I was witness to something truly extraordinary. Five people gave up one of their kidneys to five complete strangers. They didn’t know if the person getting the kidney was a man or a woman, old or young, Latino, Asian American or African American. They knew absolutely nothing about them except that they needed a kidney. And what did they get in return? They got a second chance at life for someone they love.

The event was a 5-way kidney transplant swap. It’s kind of complicated so stay with me. It involved five different couples – one a husband and wife, one a mother and son, one two friends from Bible study etc – in which one person had end stage renal disease and was in need of a kidney, the other wanted to donate their kidney to them but wasn’t a match (you need to have compatible blood and tissue types to be able to give your kidney to someone else). In the past that would have meant that the person in need of a kidney was out of luck and would have to go back on the national waiting list and hope that a cadaver kidney became available before it was too late.

But that’s changed. A sophisticated computer program was able to take those five couples, and match the donor from one couple with a recipient in another, take that person’s donor and match them with another recipient and their donor matched another patient, and so on until all five donors were able to provide a kidney to all five patients.

Life saving surgery

Aside from the sheer logistical challenges faced with doing that many surgeries at one time – five surgeons, four anesthesiologists, ten Operating Room nurses and 40 support staff – there was the concern that a last minute problem – a medical issue, a change of heart by one of the donors – could bring the whole plan to a sudden halt. If one person dropped out, for whatever reason, the whole thing stopped. Fortunately everything went according to plan and early on Friday, April 1, the patients checked in to California Pacific Medical Center (where I work) for a day that was going to change their lives.

The surgeries went well, about as well as you could have hoped for because they finished early and everyone did well. It’s an amazing thing to be able to watch a surgeon remove a kidney from a person, clean it up, and then transplant it into someone else. The kidney itself looks rather nondescript for something that is so vital to life, but you come away from the OR with a sense of awe at what you have just witnessed.

It’s now four days after the surgery and the donors have already been discharged from the hospital. Soon the recipients will be able to go home too. All of them will be different in some way. The recipients will have more energy, feel healthier and not have to go on dialysis three or four times a week to stay alive. They’ll be on anti-rejection medications for the rest of their life, but it’s a life that in so many ways will be simpler, better, healthier than it was before.

But the donors will benefit too. Studies show that donors live just as long and healthy a life as people with two kidneys, but that they often have a better quality of life because they are able to see what their gesture means to someone they love. They can see the impact their willingness to give up a kidney had on their husband or wife or mother or brother or best friend, and that makes them feel valued and valuable.

This is National Donate Life month, a time when we are all reminded how many people around the country are waiting for someone to give them a similar gift. There are more than 83,000 people on the kidney waiting list alone, and they may have to wait up to five years to get a kidney. Many die waiting. The same is true for livers and hearts and other organs.

A second chance at lifeWe can easily take care of that problem. All we need is for everyone to sign up as an organ donor. One donor can save up to eight lives and have an impact on dozens more. And for each life you save, think of the impact on their family, their loved ones. The impact of that one decision, to become an organ donor, has a ripple effect that keeps spreading out wider and wider.

There are many reasons why people don’t sign up – they fear that they won’t be able to have an open casket funeral, that doctors will somehow hasten their death so they can get the organs sooner – but those are based on fear not knowledge. This is about saving a life, not taking one. The life you save, could be that of someone you love.

April Langstraat was one of the people who got a kidney in the 5-way swap at CPMC. Her husband Alan gave his kidney to someone else in return for one for her. For April it didn’t matter where the kidney came from, all she knew was that her husband was willing to make that sacrifice for her, and that someone else was willing to make that sacrifice for someone they loved. “It’s a gift, truly a wonderful gift,” April said. “There are no words to express how grateful I am for what they have done.”

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: