He was about to turn 30 and feeling blessed. He had a great family, a solid support system, and he had found a way to help someone. A woman at the man’s church had severe kidney disease and was on dialysis three times a week. He could not help her. But he could help someone.
Most people are born with two kidneys but can live normal, healthy lives with just one. Among those willing to become living donors, most donate to family members, friends or people they know. Some are willing to donate to people they have never met. The transplant team at Upstate refers to them as “altruistic” donors.
The man had never heard the word altruistic, which means a selfless concern for the wellbeing of others. He simply wanted to help someone, without acknowledgement. He did not want to be identified by name in this story.
Living donor coordinator Ellen Havens says this happens sometimes. “Some of them just feel like they have this calling. Some of them say they knew somebody that they couldn’t donate to, or they saw somebody suffering.”
The man contacted Upstate University Hospital’s transplant center and learned that he was healthy enough to donate one of his kidneys. It was a good match for a Central New York woman, whose husband was not a match for her. The husband was still willing to donate a kidney, though, and his was a good match for another Central New York woman.
That is how transplant surgeons came to perform the first kidney exchange at Upstate: four surgeries involving two donors and two recipients on one long summer day. The spark was the altruistic donor.
Transplant surgeon J. Keith Melancon, MD, removed the man’s kidney and while his colleague, Vaughn Whittaker, MD, was sewing it into the recipient, Melancon left the operating room to let the donor’s mother and father know that all was well. “You have a great boy. I know you know that,” he began.
Melancon says an average of 17 people die each day waiting for a kidney transplant. “We have to do something besides wait for deceased donors,” he says.
Altruistic donors can help ease the shortage. So can kidney exchanges, a practice that Melancon helped implement during his year at Upstate’s transplant center. He is now chief of the division of kidney and pancreas surgery at George Washington Hospital in Washington, DC.
Instead of helping one person, an exchange can save the lives of multiple people. Google “32-person kidney swap” for coverage of 16 kidney transplants involving Melancon in 2011.
The two transplants at Upstate began to acquaint staff with the myriad details of orchestrating exchanges. As much as anything, it requires a shift in thinking. “It’s a whole new conversation that I’m having with people today,” Havens says. Instead of simply matching donors with recipients, the transplant team now asks would-be recipients if they know someone who is willing to donate a kidney.
The altruistic donor liked that his kidney would go to a woman whose husband was willing to pay it forward. Melancon did too. “Every day I get to see the best side of humanity,” the surgeon says. “This is one person helping another person.”
Listen to Dr. Vaughn Whittaker talk about kidney transplant advances
Listen to Dr. J. Keith Melancon talk about the importance of kidney transplants
Read one family’s story of kidney transplant