Pass It On- Pioneer Kidney Donation Chain

by Ann Samuel on Jul 27 2007 5:26 PM

According to Dr. Michael Rees, medical director of the Alliance for Paired Donation, the world’s first kidney donation chain began when a Michigan man donated a kidney simply because he could.

Matt Jones, 28, the donor in Michigan can be termed an altruistic donor, meaning his kidney came with no strings attached. "I thought that if I could help one person live a decent life, that would be great," Jones said. "It's turned out to be a lot more than that."

Jones' kidney was a perfect match for Barb Bunnell, 53, a Phoenix woman living with polycystic kidney disease. She received Jones' kidney last week.

Until recently, this would be the last page of the story. One donor, one recipient, one life changed forever. Yet, with paired donations, the good work continues. This is where the donation Thursday made by Barbara Bunnell's husband, Ron, comes in.

Soon after Ron Bunnell donates one of his kidneys to Heckman, Heckman's mother will donate one of her kidneys to someone.

The paired donation concept took shape as a response to the ongoing shortage of available kidneys. Doctors and researchers at medical centers across the country, including John Hopkins and the University of Toledo, realized that a willing donor like Ron Bunnell should not be let go just because he did not match his wife.

Accordingly, paired donations start when someone who needs a kidney has a person who is willing to donate one, but their body chemistry prevents a good match.

Those two people, donor and recipient, are then placed on a list together. They will then be matched with two other people in the same position. A person can receive a kidney from the paired system only if he or she has a partner who in turn is willing to donate a kidney. This type of approach, coupled with legislation which awaits President Bush's signature that clarifies that paired donations are legal and ethical and not a form of payment, could transform the field of kidney donation, according to Rees.

Rees, 44, of the University of Toledo Medical Center, has been instrumental in starting the paired donation alliance and in creating a computer program that can measure all the variables of a possible donation to make sure the right kidney ends up in the right person. Rees finds the work rewarding. In addition, he says an altruistic donor provides the chance for an endless number of sick people to get well. "It's hard to put into words," he said. "The kidney that Angela's partner is donating will allow six other people to get a new kidney. The line just keeps going."

According to The Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, as of last week there were 72,393 people waiting for a kidney in this country. Wait time can easily stretch to years depending on blood type and other variables. For paired donations, the wait is likely to be shorter, in part because while everybody on a paired donation list needs a kidney, everybody on the list also signs up with a person who has a kidney to give.

Barb Bunnell entered her data with the Alliance for Paired Donation in Toledo in May and a match was found almost immediately. Now her life is saved, and her husband will save someone else's life. Therefore, the good work goes on.