There’s poetry in altruism
Six months ago, dental hygienist Jodi Tamen sent one of her kidneys west from Chicago to a stranger in Los Angeles — a high-spirited, gray-bearded poet named G. Murray Thomas.
Last week, Tamen flew out herself to celebrate with the man whose life her gift restored.
I met up with them on Thursday, at poetry night on the campus of Loyola Marymount University, where Thomas read from his soon-to-be published collection of poems, titled “My Kidney Just Arrived.”
An outsized man, newly robust, Thomas wore a bright Hawaiian shirt and clutched a sheaf of thank-you cards signed by his friends. He introduced Tamen to the crowd as “a woman with only one kidney, but a heart as big as the ocean.” He tried, but he couldn’t get through his poems without crying.
“What do you say to someone who saved your life?” he asked, handing off the cards to Tamen. “Thank you, thank you … as many times as I can.”
It was an emotional moment not just for Tamen but also for Jackie Gorman, the woman I wrote about three weeks ago, who also donated a kidney to a stranger. She came along with me that night — two weeks after her four-hour surgery — so that we might get a sense of what it means to the person on the other end of the sacrifice.
The column prompted e-mails from several grateful readers whose lives were saved or transformed by kidney transplants from strangers. “My life is so much better — all because of this wonderful person whom I do not even know,” wrote Pam Heckathorn Hale, who received a kidney two years ago from a woman in New York as part of a chain of kidney transplants at UCLA.
The kidney transplant process, it seems, is in the midst of an evolution, driven less by medical advances than by a melding of technology and compassion.
More than 85,000 patients are on national lists awaiting kidney transplants. About 15,000 transplants are performed each year; fewer than half of those with kidneys from living donors. Still, one person dies from kidney disease every hour in this country. And the best way to make a dent in that toll may rest on strangers.
“Ten years ago, there was a reluctance to have strangers come forward and donate to strangers,” said Dr. John Milner, the surgeon at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago who removed Tamen’s kidney in April.
Thomas recalls that era well. When he began dialysis seven years ago, his friends recruited would-be donors, “but the doctors were so suspicious of their motives, they wouldn’t even test them to see if we could go forward.”
Since then, hundreds of so-called altruistic donors have been approved. But most hospitals keep those donors in-house, approving transplants only when the kidneys go to patients on the hospital’s list.
That means some willing donors wait years to be tapped, and some patients die before the hospital finds a match.
Kidney transplants, it turns out, are big business. The procedures run more than $100,000 and can net a hospital such hefty proceeds that many have been reluctant to give up a claim to a kidney.
“Altruistic donors have been treated like a commodity for the hospital’s bottom line, rather than the national treasure they are,” Milner explained. “If we unlock our patients, and our donors, we have a chance to help so many more people.”
Now that barrier is coming down. More than 50 centers across the country are working with the National Kidney Registry to create a unified list of patients and donors that will allow better matches, cross-country exchanges and transplant chains that benefit strings of patients.
That’s what led to the match between Tamen and Thomas, whose kidneys failed because of a progressive genetic disease. Two years ago, Thomas’ sister in New York offered him a kidney, but their medical profiles were not a good match.
Tamen, meanwhile, had signed up as a donor last year. When her medical tests were completed this spring, she turned out to be a perfect match for him. “I didn’t care who got my kidney,” she told me. “I just wanted to give somebody else the opportunity that I have … to get up every day, enjoy life, do whatever they want to do.”
After Thomas recovered from his transplant, his sister gave the kidney she had offered him to a patient in Salt Lake City. That man’s wife then donated a kidney to a man in New Jersey. The chain went on to include five transplants.
“That’s the beauty of it,” Milner said. “There was one donor who created [a chain of] 30 transplants. Each altruistic donor gets, on average, six transplants accomplished.”
UCLA and Cornell University in New York are national leaders in the altruistic transplant process, but the success of transplant chains is spurring more hospitals to join and more people to consider becoming donors. Tamen was Loyola’s first altruistic donor. Since then, seven more have donated kidneys, launching chains that led to 50 transplants around the country.
“People want to help, they want to save lives,” Milner said. “If we can look beyond our own institutions and get them hooked into these national chains, we can really tip the balance and cut the wait.”
It sounds like hospitals are discovering what selfless donors already know. “What goes around comes around,” Milner said. “If you play fair and put your patients first, everyone will benefit. There’s really good karma in this.”