DAVID WAHLBERG | Wisconsin State Journal
Weak from kidney disease and dialysis treatments, Carol Werndli of Madison needed a transplant. Her daughter, son and their spouses were tested to be kidney donors but none matched.
Then UW Hospital joined a program that connects mismatched donor-recipient pairs with others around the country to find compatible donors for all recipients involved.
Werndli got a kidney from a woman in Pittsburgh. Her daughter, Becky Broering, of Monona, gave one to someone in San Francisco.
Their mother-daughter connection, of note on Mother's Day, was part of a chain of 16 transplants involving 32 people in nine states. The chain started Dec. 17 in New York with a 35-year-old "good Samaritan" donor who wanted to give his kidney to anyone in need. It ended Feb. 11 in New York, where a 15-year-old boy with no living donor got a kidney.
Werndli's and Broering's surgeries, which created links No. 13 and No. 14 on the chain, were at UW Hospital on Feb. 10.
"I feel normal for the first time in many, many years," said Werndli, 68, whose kidneys stopped functioning properly nearly 40 years ago. "I got to help you and somebody else," Broering, 41, said to her mother while visiting with her last week. "How great is that?"
A shorter wait
The exchange marked UW Hospital's first participation in a transplant chain, made possible because the hospital joined the National Kidney Registry in November, said Dr. Dixon Kaufman, the hospital's chief of transplantation.
The hospital took part in two more chains in March and April, and another is in the works this month. Wisconsin's other transplant center, Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee, hasn't joined the registry.
The chains involve kidneys from living donors, which usually last longer than those from deceased donors. Normally, people in need of a transplant go on a waiting list for the first available kidney from a deceased donor or are paired with someone locally who volunteers to give up a kidney.
Transplant chains dramatically expand the pool of living donors beyond a recipient's family and friends.
UW Hospital had orchestrated kidney exchanges among its own patients before, and about 40 percent of its 300 annual kidney transplants involve living donors. But the registry, which includes 54 transplant centers, can lead to quicker and better matches, Kaufman said.
"People who donate really don't care who gets their specific kidney; they just want their loved one to get a kidney transplant," he said. "I think it's going to be pretty much a routine process now."
Software entrepreneur Garet Hil started the New York-based registry in 2007. He, his wife and other family members weren't matches for their 10-year-old daughter, who needed a kidney and eventually got one.
The nonprofit registry has helped arrange 274 transplants through 58 chains, the vast majority within six months after patients sign up, said Gary LeBlanc, outreach director. The biggest chain involved 23 transplants.
The Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, which oversees the country's transplant system for the government, will soon start organizing its own transplant chains, spokesman Joel Newman said.
More than 88,000 people are on the kidney transplant waiting list nationally, including 1,400 in Wisconsin. Most wait three to five years and some die while waiting, but the growing trend of chains could speed things up.
"A lot of people are waiting longer than they should have to," LeBlanc said.
Werndli, a retired office manager at Meriter Hospital, was put on the waiting list two years ago. She lost some kidney function in 1972 after contracting what doctors believe was toxic shock syndrome, a bacterial infection from tampons not identified until a few years later.
She lived with partial kidney function for decades. When the organs deteriorated further in 2006, she had a kidney procedure that helped temporarily.
In 2009, as she became weaker, her children and their spouses were tested as potential donors but didn't match.
A friend of Broering's did match but was found unable to be a donor. In December of that year, Werndli started dialysis treatments three times a week, which improved her health by cleansing her blood but also made her tired.
Then Broering, e-health director at UW Health, learned that UW Hospital had joined the registry. She and her mom signed up and became part of the chain.
At 3 a.m. on Feb. 10, doctors removed one of Broering's kidneys and flew it to San Francisco. The Pittsburgh donor's kidney arrived the same day and was transplanted into Werndli at 3 p.m.
Werndli said the transplant has given her energy to enjoy many things she couldn't do before: driving, going grocery shopping, eating out with friends, and seeing sports and musical events involving her four grandchildren, ages 11 to 15.
Her recovery was challenged, however, by her husband's death March 3. His liver cancer was discovered after it had spread throughout his body. The couple would have been married 45 years this month.
As Werndli placed her arm on her daughter's arm while sitting on a sofa at her home on Madison's West Side, she said the transplant has helped her grieve.
"I couldn't let her down and sit around and mope about it," she said. "I have to make the best of this wonderful opportunity."
Though their exchange was part of a chain, Werndli said it seems as if it was carried out as originally planned: daughter to mother.
"I would have felt the same if the kidney had come directly from her," she said. "It was Becky who gave me a chance of life."