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Paired kidney donation helps incompatible donors give 'gift of life'

by UofL Today last modified Dec 21, 2009 01:16 PM

Two Kentucky kidney disease patients received transplants last week through a paired donation process that also allowed two other women to finally realize their wish to give the "gift of life."

Paired kidney donation helps incompatible donors give 'gift of life'

L-R, back row: Mary Eng, Ginger Stribling, Joseph Buell, Christene Baldwin and Michael Marvin. Front row: Michael Weed, Jo Dobbs

The transplant surgeries were performed by University of Louisville physicians at Jewish Hospital.

Jo Dobbs, 53, needed a kidney transplant. Her friend Ginger Stribling, 54, offered one of hers.

"She offered me a kidney over lunch one day," Dobbs said. "I was thankful but really wanted her to know what she was getting herself into. We got her some information on the process and sent her home with it to read. I expected her to change her mind, but she was not deterred."

But the two were imcompatible. Stribling's kidney would not function in her friend's body. An act of unbelievable generosity turned to frustration.

Halfway across the country, Christene Baldwin was haunted by a similar situation. She once had wanted to give her kidney to a friend - a woman she had met through her service in the military - but they had been incompatible.

"Ever since that happened, I knew I wanted to donate one of my kidneys to someone in need," said Baldwin, now 41, a mother of three young children and a special education teacher in Hardin County, Ky. "Life is unpredictable, we don't even know what's going to happen tomorrow. Why wouldn't I give my kidney to someone who needs it?"

Through the magic of the paired donation program, UofL doctors at Jewish Hospital were able to bring the three women together on Tuesday, Dec. 15. They transplanted Baldwin's kidney into Dobbs, and Stribling's into Mike Weed, a 26-year-old man diagnosed four years ago with kidney disease, who was on dialysis three times a week.

"I think an awful lot of someone who would be willing to donate a kidney," Weed said. "I'm hoping to get a job and get back to a more normal life after this; I just kept having a strange feeling I was going to get a kidney before Christmas."

Paired donation is a nationwide program that matches kidney patients whose willing donors are incompatible with them with another donor/recipient pair in the same situation. The program is available through several centers nationwide and a national matching registry helps many patients who cannot receive a kidney from a loved one to be transplanted by exchanging donors with a stranger. In an ideal scenario, two incompatible pairs are matched, but in this case, Baldwin served as an altruistic donor with no partner, so transplant coordinators turned to the kidney transplant waiting list.

"Paired donation really expands the number of people whose lives can be saved and improved through kidney transplant," said Michael Marvin, assistant professor of surgery at UofL and transplant surgeon at Jewish Hospital. "Many people think that successful transplantation relies only on having a willing family member or friend who wants to help the patient, but unfortunately it's very often not that easy."

The Louisville surgeries were successful. All four patients have been released from the hospital and are at home recuperating. Stribling is recovering with Dobbs at her home.

"The surgeries last week went as planned and all four patients are doing well," said Joseph Buell, director of the abdominal transplant team at Jewish Hospital and professor of surgery at UofL. "It is our hope that they will all thrive and live full lives, and this is an especially nice holiday gift for our two patients who were awaiting transplant."

Baldwin said the timing worked out perfectly for her. She can recover during her school's holiday break and not miss any time away from her students. Altruistic donors like Baldwin are extremely rare; there have only been a small handful of others in the past 10 years at Jewish Hospital, according to transplant coordinators there.

"I have an amazing husband who will help with our own kids, and amazing colleagues at the school where I teach," she said. "I'm told I can't pick up anything heavy for about 12 weeks and we have kids in wheelchairs in my class, but my co-workers have volunteered to do all of the heavy lifting while I recover. I couldn't have done this without my support team. They are truly the selfless ones."

About 500,000 people are under treatment for end-stage kidney disease in the United States; about 20,000 kidney transplants are performed each year. Donor organs may come either from living or deceased individuals, although living donor transplants function longer and have higher success rates. Without transplant, patients may become dependent on dialysis, a process in which a machine does the work of the kidneys. About 67,000 people die each year from end-stage kidney disease, and many die while waiting for a transplant.

"There is a huge need for organ donation in this country, both from living and deceased donors," said Mary Eng, transplant surgeon at Jewish Hospital and assistant professor of surgery at UofL. "The paired donation program represents another method through which patients can get the kidneys they need, and altruistic donors like Ms. Baldwin are simply inspiring. To give selflessly of yourself like that is unusual and amazing."

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