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George Kovacik

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Six-way organ swap
A stranger’s donation starts six-way kidney transplant swap

A stranger began a chain of events that eventually saved the lives of six people in desperate need of new kidneys. Her organ donation triggered a six-way kidney swap at Houston Methodist Hospital in July, the second largest of its kind performed at one institution in Texas.

“To give a kidney to someone you do not know is an incredibly generous thing to do,” said A. Osama Gaber, M.D., director of Houston Methodist J.C. Walter Jr. Transplant Center and one of the surgeons who took part in the swap. “These donors are true heroes.”

The chain was started by Dana Edson, a nurse from Kerrville, Texas. Earlier this year, she cared for an acquaintance from church, who mentioned that she only had one kidney because she had given her son one of her kidneys 16 years ago. She then told Edson that he was in need of another transplant because that kidney was failing. Without hesitation, Edson offered to be tested to see if she was a match for the son whom she had never met. 

“It turned out that I was match for her son and could have donated directly to him, but was told by Dr. Gaber that I could help more people if I would be willing to donate to another stranger,” Edson said. “I knew I was being called by God to do this and wanted to help as many people as I could with my one donation.”

Edson took part in the six-way kidney swap, a process where she donated her kidney to an unknown recipient, so her recipient could receive a kidney from another donor who was a match. Ten other people, five recipients and five donors, were also part of the chain. While the donors originally agreed to donate to someone they knew, they all ended up donating to strangers within the six-way swap. The names of the donors and recipients were matched using a high-tech computer program.  

“Kidney swaps involving 12 people are very rare because they become so complex,” Gaber said. “It requires donors with the right biology and the sophisticated lab technology to match donors and recipients, which is usually found only at a large transplant center.” 

Gaber said a transplant through living donation is safe for those who donate, but also much better for the recipient. Because donors receive a full workup, doctors are able to learn more about their medical history and their kidney function, therefore improving the chances of a better outcome and longer survival for the recipient. The screening process usually takes three to four months.

“Most patients who cannot find a living donor can be stuck on the national kidney waiting list anywhere from three to six years and that can cause a great deal of stress and anxiety, as well as many hours undergoing dialysis,” Gaber said. “We know that a living donor kidney can last anywhere from 12 to 20 years, while a deceased kidney is between eight and 12 years, so finding a living donor is always a good thing.”

Gaber adds that about 5 percent of patients on the transplant list will die each year while waiting for a kidney from a deceased donor. 

“It really is humbling and amazing to be a part of something so special,” Edson said. “Being able to give someone a part of yourself to help them live a better life, or any life at all, has been an incredible experience. I feel extremely blessed that God allowed me to be a small part of this miracle that only He could have orchestrated.”

Bios on the donors and recipients can be seen here. For more on Houston Methodist Hospital, visit us online or call 713.790.3333. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.