Stranger donates kidney after knowing recipient 5 minutes; could boost living kidney donations, which have better odds

Two strangers were randomly asked to take part in a five-minute demonstration of living art. It led to one of them donating a kidney to the other, Bailey Loosemore reports for The Courier-Journal.

The  idea of the demonstration, produced by Transylvania University faculty members for the 2013 IdeaFestival, was to ask two strangers to talk for five minutes, and then post a “burning question” on Twitter.

After five minutes of discussion, a University of Louisville employee, identified only as Kathy, told Loosemore that she thought about how she wanted to do something important and  decided her burning question was, “What’s next?”

Jackie Thomas (C-J photo by Alton Strupp)

Jackie Thomas, a retired teacher and dialysis patient since 2011, was also wondering “What’s next?” She had recently been placed on a kidney transplant list, but had already started looking into living donations, in which a healthy person volunteers to donate one of their organs, because the wait is so long to get a kidney from a deceased donor, Loosemore writes.

But Thomas said she wasn’t sure how she was going to ask someone for a kidney until Kathy asked, “What’s next?” She thought “Wow, that is really a powerful question,” and replied with a burning question for Kathy’s Twitter feed: “Would you like to donate a kidney to me?”

Kathy said yes. “I think my question about what’s next was kind of in my head, and this was kind of an answer. OK, I can donate a kidney,” she told Loosemore. She asked that her last name not be revealed because she did not want the focus to be on her.

The offer left Thomas speechless, Loosemore reports: “I said to her, ‘I’ve only known you for five minutes, and you’re going to give me a kidney?’ She said ‘Yeah,’ and she looked really serious. … So I thought, ‘Here is the answer to my prayers, maybe.'”

Because living donations are all voluntary, Thomas did not know for certain if the transplant was really going to happen until the day of the surgery, April 8, 2014.

Kathy, who told Loosemore that she meets Thomas for lunch at least once a month, said she has no regrets.

“It’s a really personal decision,” she told Loosemore. “I’m not going to go out and say everybody should donate a kidney, but I think people should know for a healthy person, it’s relatively risk-free and it’s not that painful. And if they’re really interested in doing something that makes a big difference in someone’s life, educate themselves, but definitely think about donating a kidney, because it’s not that bad.”

Loosemore reports that more than 100,000 Americans are on waiting lists for kidneys and that in 2014, living donations made up only 32 percent of transplanted kidneys — and only 25 percent in Kentucky, according to data from the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. So far in Kentucky this year, there have been 13 kidney transplants, eight from deceased donors and five from living donors; last year, there were 109 from deceased donors and 36 from living.

“The benefits of living kidney donations far outweigh the risks, with living kidneys lasting twice as long as those from deceased donors and the surgeries causing little pain,” Loosemore writes, quoting Dr. Mike Hughes, a transplant surgeon who works for University of Louisville Physicians and operates at Jewish Hospital — the only one in Louisville that does transplants.

Jewish Hospital continues to promote its donor champion program, in which family members are asked to request kidneys for recipients who may feel too uncomfortable to do so, and plans to hold an informational forum later this year, in an effort to raise awareness, Loosemore reports.

The forum and the donor-champion program “will help identify barriers that lead to fewer donations and will help encourage those who want to take the next step,” Loosemore writes. Jewish Hospital’s transplant director, Laurie Oliver, told her that living donations will become “the standard of care at some point in the future, if we can do that.”

Click here to learn more about living kidney donation from the National Kidney Foundation. To learn how to donate a kidney through Jewish Hospital, call 502-586-4900.

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