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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — About a year ago, Allegheny General Hospital was part of a large kidney chain, involving 12 transplants and 24 patients. Now, UPMC has surpassed that with an even bigger organ exchange involving 16 transplants, 32 surgeries, 12 medical centers and 10 states.
Troy Johnson, a 36-year-old systems analyst, husband and father of two young children from Latrobe needed a kidney transplant. The kidney he had gotten from his father was failing.
“When you find out about it, it’s not much of a surprise,” he says. “It’s difficult running up to somebody and saying, ‘Hey, I need a kidney.’ It’s just not something I’m able to do.”
His 59-year-old mother-in-law, Rita Dolezal, was willing to donate.
“I just decided I was going to do this,” she says.
However, she wasn’t a match.
Even so, she was still able to donate through a 16-way swap that gave her son-in-law what he needed – not in years, or even months, but a week.
“The computer can help track all that, but it does become mathematically complex,” admits UPMC transplant surgeon Dr. Ron Shapiro. This particular chain was coordinated by the National Kidney Registry.
The chain started in December in New York, where a donor kidney was flown to Texas. A kidney from Texas was flown to Illinois.
The chain (i.e. a donor kidney is transplanted, and a living donor kidney is harvested and shipped) continued to New Jersey, then Washington, back to New York, to California, back to New York, California and Washington, and then Florida.
From Tampa, a kidney came for Troy.
“You just keep crossing your fingers, let’s all stay healthy,” he says.
“Potentially, you could have a donor back out, something could happen, someone could get sick, sure,” says UPMC transplant surgeon Dr. Henkie Tan about possible hurdles in this sort of arrangement.
In fact, this particular chain was broken nine times, but got right back on track. Dr. Shapiro adds that it’s not a simple thing to orchestrate.
“You have to have a donor surgeon willing to start at 4 in the morning,” Dr. Shapiro said. “So, you have to have an OR willing to start at 4 in the morning, which means you have OR nurses coming in at 2:30 to get it organized. You have to have donors willing to come in, in the middle of the night.”
Rita’s kidney went to Wisconsin. The chain continued to California, and then New York where things wrapped up last week.
“Ideally, it should be nationalized, because you get more recipients in the pool, more donors in the pool,” says Dr. Tan. “It’s just a matter of time, the logistics, the legality of it.”
“If you have people who want to donate to you, they don’t have to be a match for you,” says Johnson gratefully. “They can still stand up, and make a difference.”
Troy got the call there was a kidney for him on the day before Christmas Eve. The transplant occurred on Feb. 10 – the week after the Super Bowl. Ironically, Rita’s kidney went to Wisconsin, to a Packers fan.