by Ross Brown | The Dartmouth
Two volunteer pilots — each equipped with an ice chest containing a human kidney — rendezvoused at the Allegheny County Airport in Pittsburgh on Dec. 6. The pilots exchanged ice chests and traveled to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and Barnes-Jewish Medical Center in St. Louis, where doctors completed the first national kidney exchange.
As a result, Kathy Niedzwiecki of Pelham, N.H., and Ken Crowder of St. Louis, Mo., each received the kidney they needed to survive, according to The Boston Globe.
This kidney exchange marked the first successful match through a new program operated by the United Network for Organ Sharing, The Globe reported.
While previous donor registries only matched pairs regionally, the United Network for Organ Sharing has developed a system called “kidney-paired donation” that includes donors and recipients from 77 transplant programs across the nation, according to The Globe.
David Axelrod, chief of transplantation surgery at DHMC, performed Niedzwiecki’s and Richard’s operations. Axelrod is a staunch advocate of the new program, according to the Associated Press.
“As we think about health care reform, there are very few things in health care that we can point to that both save lives, make people better, and actually cost less money,” Axelrod told the AP. “Kidney transplantation is one of them.”
The program emerged in response to the high demand for kidneys and other organs, according to Rick Adams, media relations manager for Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.
“The real innovation here is expanding the pool of potential recipients of live organs,” Adams said in an interview with The Dartmouth.
Through this system, one participant donates a kidney to another patient, while someone close to the original donor receives a kidney in return, The Globe reported.
Prior to her kidney transplant — which was facilitated by the organ sharing program — Niedzwiecki had long been struggling with her failing kidney.
“I felt nauseous on a daily basis, but not so much that I couldn’t function,” Niedzwiecki said in an interview with The Dartmouth. “I didn’t want to go on dialysis because I didn’t want to give up my job and my freedom.”
Niedzwiecki said her decision to refuse dialysis made her chances of receiving a kidney donation from a regional donor “slim to none.”
“But I kept putting [things] off and off until I finally had to do something,” Niedwiecki said.
Niedzwiecki found out that she had a match on the national list in October, according to a DHMC press release. Niedzwiecki said she had supplied a coordinating center in the area with her medical information that sent this data to UNOS, which the connected Niedzwiecki and Crowder as a match for one another.
“It’s just amazing how the whole thing worked out,” Niedzwiecki said.
Catherine Richard, Niedzwiecki’s sister-in-law, agreed to give one of her kidneys to Crowder in order for Niedzwiecki to receive the kidney she needed.
Likewise, Crowder’s fiancé, Rebecca Burkes, agreed to give her kidney to Niedzwiecki so that Crowder received Richard’s kidney.
Burkes and Richard had each intended to donate a kidney directly to their loved ones, and entered the program when they learned that this was impossible due to medical incompatibility, The Globe reported.
Of the 93,000 individuals who are on the national waiting list for a kidney, 3,300 live in New England, Ruthanne Hanto, who serves as clinical program manager for the New England Program for Kidney Exchange, told The Globe.
“This program increases the number of people they’re matching with, and it gives people a greater chance,” Hanto said to The Globe. “It’s really significant for people difficult to match.”
The success of the first transplant bodes well for the new program’s future, according to a DHMC press release.
“The goal of the pilot project is to see whether combining the data of multiple centers and networks will generate successful matches that may not be found through one individual organization,” UNOS President Charles Alexander said in the release. “The fact that these transplants occurred from the first match run suggests this will be true.”
Niedzwiecki said she originally expected the recovery process to be nearly instantaneous, but that it is taking longer than she anticipated.
“I thought I would wake up and feel a lot better right after the surgery,” she said. “But I woke up with a big incision in my stomach, and the anti-rejection medication I had to take didn’t help how I was feeling.”
To celebrate the successful operations, Niedzwiecki said she planned multiple cruises planned in the upcoming months. “One is scheduled for June and the other for the end of the year,” she said.
Niedzwiecki said she hopes her successful experience will help increase awareness about kidney-paired donation.
“The kidney is the only body part that we have that kind of control over,” she said. “You only need one to survive — you can’t do this with any other body part, but you can do it with a kidney. I know adults and children everywhere who are waiting for kidneys. The more awareness that is out there about this paired donation, the better the system will be.”
The kidney-paired donation program could yield an extra 2,000 to 3,000 transplant surgeries a year, The Globe reported.
Although the UNOS program is still expanding, approximately 760 kidney-paired donations occurred last year, The Globe reported.
Axelrod could not be reached for comment by press time.