Send to receive: Strangers donate kidneys to save loved ones

Thursday, December 9, 2010 | 11:45 a.m. CST

LEBANON, N.H. — A national pilot program that helps arrange so-called kidney exchanges has seen its first success with transplants performed in New Hampshire and St. Louis.

The United Network for Organ Sharing started up in October to facilitate "kidney paired donation," where someone donates a kidney to a stranger so their friend or loved one can receive a compatible organ in return.

The project's first transplants were performed Monday at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H.., and Barnes-Jewish Medical Center in St. Louis.

Cathy Richard, of Henniker, N.H., donated a kidney to Ken Crowder of St. Louis. Crowder's fiance, Rebecca Burkes, donated a kidney to Richard's sister-in-law, Kathy Niedzwiecki, of Pelham, N.H.

The New Hampshire participants and their surgeon described their experience Thursday at a news conference at the hospital.

"We all realize that the shortage of donors is only getting worse," Dr. David Axelrod said in a statement before the conference. "The innovation here is an increasing pool of potential donor-recipient pairs. Expanding the database of willing and able live donors, at the local, regional and national level through programs like this pilot enables us to maximize access to this precious resource."

Fewer than 17,000 kidney transplants are performed in the U.S. each year, and just over a third are from living donors — relatives or friends who happen to be biologically compatible. About 760 of those in the last three years were through kidney paired donation, but specialists predict the new database could eventually result in 2,000 to 3,000 more transplants a year.

Some transplant centers have formed regional alliances to mix and match patients and their would-be donors, but some patients have had to track down participating centers on their own and travel hundreds of miles for surgery. Under the new project, 77 transplant centers submit information about patients and their would-be donors to the database, which periodically alerts centers to potential matches with people from other parts of the country.


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