'I know I saved someone's life': How living donors are changing organ transplants

Ottawa Citizen | Elizabeth Payne

She’s been called both crazy and amazing for donating an organ to a stranger, but Annemieke Vanneste may be what scientists call a ‘super altruist.’ In the wake of Eugene Melnyk’s high-profile transplant plea, Elizabeth Payne tracks at the rise of the ‘live donor’ and the ethical quandaries they raise.

Sisters Caroline and Annemieke Vanneste are both living organ donors: Caroline, left, gave her kidney to a friend and Annemieke gave hers to a stranger. DARREN BROWN / OTTAWA CITIZEN

Annemieke Vanneste spent last Christmas in a hospital bed trying not to roll on her side and dealing with some nasty side effects from painkillers.

The Ottawa woman wasn’t there because of an accident or a disease, or even a mental illness — although there was a time when some thought people like Vanneste must be crazy.

Why else would anyone eagerly choose to give one of her kidneys to a complete stranger?

The title of a 2003 scientific research paper captured the skepticism of the time: “The living anonymous kidney donor: lunatic or saint?” it asked.

Times have changed. Living organ donors like Vanneste are now responsible for a significant number of organs transplanted each year. Living donors even slightly outnumber deceased donors in Canada when it comes to kidney transplants. In 2013, there were 588 living organ donations in Canada, compared to 553 deceased organ donations. Continue reading