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EXCHANGE: Generosity kicks off kidney ‘transplant chain’

July 5, 2018

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Before Deborah Kunath received a fateful call from Memorial Medical Center last year, the 61-year-old Jacksonville resident worried she would die on dialysis, waiting for a life-saving kidney donation.

It turned out that a Springfield woman who approached Memorial officials and offered to donate a kidney to someone she might never meet came to Kunath’s rescue and provided the “catalyst for a chain reaction” for Memorial’s first-ever kidney transplant chain.

The chain — involving eight patients and providing live donor kidneys to four people — was celebrated June 20, by Memorial and the donors and recipients, as well as members of the transplant program’s team and the program’s other partners, Southern Illinois University School of Medicine and Springfield Clinic.

“This is really a profound moment in the history of our transplant center,” said Dr. Marc Garfinkel, an SIU faculty member and surgical director of the Alan G. Birtch, MD, Center for Transplant Services.

The chain involved three pairs made up of people who wanted to donate a kidney to their friend or family member, but for whom a transplant couldn’t take place because of biological incompatibility.

Memorial staff determined, however, that transplants could occur from a donor in one pair to a stranger as part of a chain.

The chain began with a “non-directed” donor, Misty Shaw, 49, of Springfield, who agreed to donate a kidney to a stranger who needed one.

The transplants took place at Memorial over seven weeks, from Sept. 19 to Nov. 3, during surgeries involving Garfinkel and SIU urologist Dr. Bradley Schwartz. Springfield Clinic nephrologist Dr. Bradford West oversaw the care of all eight patients before and after their surgeries.

Shaw’s kidney was given to the recipient of the first of three pairs, whose prospective donor agreed to give a kidney to the recipient from the second pair.

The second pair’s donor gave a kidney to the recipient from the third pair, whose donor gave her a kidney to the fourth recipient — a man who was on the waiting list for a kidney but didn’t have another live donor lined up.

For Kunath, a former schoolteacher and librarian, the chain meant the chance for a longer life and the ability to be freed of the exhaustion associated with end-stage kidney disease and the dialysis she had undergone the past 2 1/2 years.

“I feel 20 years younger,” she said.

Her brother, who suffered from the same congenital kidney disease, died several years ago in California at age 65 while on dialysis waiting for a kidney transplant, Kunath said.

She commended all of the medical professionals but gave the most credit to Shaw, who approached Memorial after reading about chained transplants.

“She did this remarkable thing, and all of the rest of us are terribly grateful,” Kunath said.

None of the donors knew the identity of his or her recipient at the time of the surgeries. All later agreed to meet each other, and all except one did so.

Shaw, a Fulton County native who is single, said something about donating a kidney appealed to her.

“To me, it’s like, why wouldn’t you do it if you can do something to help someone?” she asked.

Meeting Kunath and her husband, Robert Kunath, was an added bonus, Shaw said.

Robert Kunath, 60, a professor of history at Illinois College, said he knew that none of the donors was legally obligated to continue the chain after his or her friend or family member received a kidney.

But Kunath said there was no way he wasn’t going to help another recipient after Shaw, whose identity was unknown at the time, gave his wife such a precious gift.

Robert Kunath said it was moving to meet Ian Robertson, 28, a Chatham resident and Walgreens pharmacy technician who received Kunath’s kidney and was able to avoid going on dialysis after learning he had kidney failure.

Robertson, who is separated, said the transplant was painful to recover from and resulted in some mild organ rejection that he was able to overcome with medicine. But Robertson said he has no regrets, and the transplant resolved the blurry vision and high blood pressure that were the result of his failing kidney function.

Robertson and the friend who was the other half of his pair actually matched for a transplant. But in the preparation for their surgeries, it was discovered that Robertson’s prospective donor, a central Illinois man who wanted to remain anonymous, also matched another person in the chain, Garfinkel said.

Robertson and his friend graciously agreed to be part of the chain so two other recipients eventually could benefit, and participation in the chain didn’t delay Robertson’s ability to receive a live donor kidney, Garfinkel said.

The recipient of the anonymous donor’s kidney was Rebecca Reed, 63, a retired District 186 physical education teacher from Edinburg. Reed’s sister-in-law, Vicky Beatty, 57, a state worker from Springfield, donated a kidney to the final recipient, Donald Pierce, 64, a retired corporate safety officer from Palmyra, Missouri.

Reed, who has been married almost 39 years, spent 2 1/2 years on dialysis before her Oct. 31 transplant. She said a transplant “gives you your life back.”

The fatigue that had made it difficult for her to do dishes, laundry and even stand for very long evaporated almost immediately after the transplant, she said.

She now is able to go horseback riding, walk her dog and enjoy “just very simple things that people don’t think about,” she said.

Reed said she was able to meet her donor earlier this week.

“I was so overwhelmed, I wanted to cry,” she said. “It’s such a wonderful feeling to know someone you don’t know would give up a part of themselves to benefit you.”

Pierce hasn’t been able to meet Beatty yet — Beatty was ill and couldn’t attend the festivities — but he said he hopes to meet her soon.

Pierce, a retiree of Dot Foods in Sterling, said the two years he was on dialysis meant a more-restricted life for him and his wife of almost 21 years, Farrell Church.

He said the couple’s Christian faith helped him endure sickness and despair while waiting for a transplant.

“It gave me the assurance that everything is going to be OK,” said Pierce, who has four children and 18 grandchildren. “I never expected to get a living donor kidney.”

Garfinkel said kidney transplants typically cost $50,000 to $60,000, and the costs incurred by a living donor generally are covered by the recipient’s health insurance.

The cost of a transplant, on average, is less than the cost of keeping a patient on dialysis, which comes with its own risks and complications, he said.

Transplants involving live kidney donors usually result in longer kidney function for the recipient than transplants involving deceased donors, he said.

Memorial would like to do be involved with more kidney transplant chains, he said, adding that the experience with the first one helped the 46-year-old transplant program build the infrastructure for future chains.

He credited Amber Carriker, the program’s living-donor advocate, and registered nurse Brenan Dennison, the pre-transplant coordinator, with helping the first transplant chain be so successful.

“It’s a team effort that a lot of people were involved in, and we definitely hope to do it again,” he said.

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Source: The (Springfield) State Journal-Register, https://bit.ly/2tjMZGe

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Information from: The State Journal-Register, http://www.sj-r.com

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