DONATE LIFE ORGAN DONATION AWARENESS-TUCSON, ARIZONA
AFTER 4-YEAR WAIT, DONOR ORGAN COMES FROM A STRANGER AFTER 4 YEARS ON LIST FOR TRANSPLANT, DONATION STRANGER STEPS UP
Craigslist kidney just in time
Stephanie Innes Arizona Daily Star
On the left Jessica Cameron,cq,(JESSICA CAMERON), and Diane White,cq,(DIANE WHITE), hug each other and are holding back tears as they meet each other for the first time Thursday May 27, 2010,cq,(THURSDAY MAY 27, 2010) in Tucson, Arizona. Jessica gave Diane a kidney. Photo by Benjie Sanders/Arizona Daily Star
Diane White had been living without any kidneys for three months and had been on a transplant waiting list for more than four years when she received a call about a potential donor.
Weak and tired from spending nine hours a week in dialysis, White had begun praying more than usual. She was thirsty and suffering from headaches. She couldn't urinate, so she was only allowed to drink as much liquid as her body could absorb.
She'd had calls about donors before, but they'd always fallen through.
"This one felt different," said White, a 46-year-old southeast-side resident and mother of an adult son.
It was. And "different" would be a good way to describe that March 29 call, too. White is now recovering from a kidney transplant that by all indications was successful. It was also highly unusual.
Few transplant recipients receive kidneys from complete strangers who are still alive. And few find their donors on Craigslist - though the strategy could catch on as doctors and transplant coordinators increasingly encourage people needing kidney transplants to seek out living donors.
Statistically, it was a long shot for White to expect that a stranger would to step up and offer such profound, invasive help. Normally, organs for people on the waiting list come from deceased donors. In fewer than 3 percent of cases, an organ will come from a living, anonymous donor.
White had exhausted her options. Her husband, Stuart, was the wrong blood type. Her son, Nicholas, has spina bifida and wasn't considered healthy enough to be a donor. She tried a church newsletter and asked friends and other relatives.
There were volunteers, but no match.
The waiting list wasn't promising, either. White has Type O blood, the most common type and in the highest demand, so her spot on the list was barely moving up.
In a healthy person, the kidneys - two organs in the upper part of the abdomen, toward the back - are each about the size of a fist.
Until they were removed in January of this year, White's kidneys had been as big as footballs, engorged by fluid-filled cysts from a genetic disorder called polycystic kidney disease.
She was diagnosed in 1998 and by August 2007 her kidneys were in such bad shape that her doctor said it was time to go on dialysis. She'd already been waiting two years for a kidney.
As she waited, Tanya Gutierrez - a woman White had met in dialysis - got fed up with her own wait.
Gutierrez, now 36, had a kidney transplant at age 19 but needed another. Her husband saw a CNN story about three sisters who found a kidney donor for their ailing father on Craigslist.com, a popular website for free classified ads.
"People sell all kinds of things on Craigslist. A lot of people read it," Gutierrez said. "And I didn't want to just sit around and wait. I wanted to do something for myself."
She posted an ad on May 3, 2009.
Responses poured in, many from people who insinuated that they wanted money, which ruled them out. Selling organs is illegal, so donors can take no compensation.
Then a 37-year-old single mother in Phoenix read the ad while she was on Craigslist to sell some of her son's toys. Three months later, Gutierrez had a new kidney and is now close friends with the donor.
Another man who answered the ad decided to give his kidney anonymously to someone in need.
"I never in a million years thought something that good would happen to me," Gutierrez said. "It's a miracle and a blessing."
Annette Whinery, the coordinator of University Medical Center's living donor program, says it is becoming common for patients to look for living donors - usually through church, work and friends.
Organs from a living donor have a shorter time outside of the body on ice. The shorter the "cold ischemic time," the better the outcome, Whinery said.
It's still rare, though, that a living donor is a stranger.
"A lot of them have had someone on dialysis who they could not help," Whinery said. "Or they are just very good people who out of the goodness of their heart can't stand thinking of other people suffering. It's like giving blood for some people."
Although she knew Craigslist had worked for Gutierrez, White was reluctant to take the same step.
"I didn't want to sound like I was begging," she said. "I don't like asking for help"
But she needed a kidney. So she typed up a simple listing under "community news and events."
"My name is Diane White and I am in dire need of a kidney," it said, going on to describe her condition, her family and donation details.
"Thank you and may God bless," it concluded.
Several media outlets ran stories about White's ad and soon she was barraged with offers of help from all over the country. More than 15 calls came in the first week. Whinery began working down the list, contacting prospective donors and screening them.
"We rule out more people than we use as donors," Whinery said.
One volunteer she contacted was Jessica Cameron, a 28-year-old Sierra Vista educator who served in Iraq in the U.S. Army in 2003. Cameron grew up in a family that donated blood and liked to volunteer.
"I have two kidneys," Cameron said this week, "and I only need one."
Because of the massive outpouring, at first it looked like Cameron's help wouldn't be needed.
But when the transplant program notified her earlier this year that everyone else had fallen through, Cameron drove to Tucson and went through three days of screening tests and a complex medical workup.
Donors must be in excellent health - no heart disease, diabetes or high blood pressure. They also need good kidney function, and to have a healthy weight. Also, donors must undergo a psychological evaluation.
Cameron's mother came to Arizona for the surgery and helped take care of her daughter while she recovered. Cameron is taking five weeks off work and said the pain when she woke up was worse than she'd anticipated. But she is not expected to have any lasting effects other than three little scars on her abdomen and one longer one below her bikini line.
She has no regrets.
White's medical insurance covered all the expenses of the donation, including pain medication and follow-up checks.
"They told me to avoid contact sports and I haven't wanted to do that in the last five years. I don't see myself developing an urge, either," Cameron joked. "The big pain is over now, so I'm going on with my life as normal."
If Cameron is ever in need of a kidney transplant herself, her status as a donor would push her to the top of the waiting list.
"We are very protective of the donor," Whinery said.
Cameron is reluctant to talk much about herself or her gesture and says she doesn't think she did anything particularly special. What she would like is for more people to consider being living donors.
"The only reason I'm talking about it is so that maybe other people will think about doing this," she said.
White got out of the hospital May 20 after suffering a complication - a tear in her bladder. She's on the mend now and expects to make a full recovery.
"It was such a good match. I started making urine as soon as they put it in," said White, who met Cameron for the first time on Thursday.
White and her husband Stuart are now looking forward to traveling, something they couldn't do while White was on dialysis. She wants to go to Italy.
"To be so unselfish, it just blows me away," White said of Cameron. "She has given me a chance to live out the rest of my life."
By the Numbers
Kidney transplants at Tucson's University Medical Center:
• Transplants in 2009: 86
• Percent from living donors: 36
• Number of Arizonans waiting for a kidney transplant: 1,392
• Number of Americans waiting for a kidney transplant: 85,066
• Median wait time: 1.7 years to 5.6 years, depending on blood type
SOURCES: University Medical Center, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services