On a warm October morning in Houston, seven months into the COVID-19 pandemic, a young man from Lake Charles was surprised to learn his kidney donor was a woman in her 50s whose husband was severely ill with kidney disease. He had never met her until that morning—and now he is forever grateful to her for this second chance at life.


This heartfelt encounter was repeated four more times, as recipients of a rare 5-way kidney swap met their donors a few days after their lifesaving surgeries at Houston Methodist Hospital. A husband and wife, a mother and son, two cousins, two sisters, and a boss and her employee were part of a transplant swap, which is a way to save patients who need a kidney but who have incompatible donors. By agreeing to a swap, the donors provide kidneys to different recipients, usually strangers, and these surgeries happen in quick succession. Five-way swaps are rare because they take great medical expertise and resources, and agreement from 10 transplant patients.


The Houston Methodist chain began on Oct. 20 with Tara Berliski of Magnolia, Texas.  Tara was a match for her husband John “HB” Berliski, who had both his kidneys removed in July after a 20-year battle with Polycystic Kidney Disease. However, when Houston Methodist informed Tara that she had also matched with a young “hard to match” patient, the couple chose to be a part of the swap that ultimately saved four additional lives.


“The decision was a no-brainer,” said Tara. “I was taught to help those in need. It’s just how I was raised.” She matched with Justin Barrow—the patient from Lakes Charles—who was considered a hard-to-match recipient due to his high antibody count. Justin was diagnosed with a rare disease called nephropathic cystinosis when he was 18-months old.


“A five-way swap is a very complex logistical task, even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic, but seeing the new hope from patients is what makes it all worthwhile,” said Osama Gaber, M.D, Director of J.C. Walter Jr. Transplant Center and lead surgeon for the swap. “I am continually amazed by people’s generosity. Good Samaritan donors, like Tara, restore my faith in humanity.”


More than 80 health care professionals were involved in the care for the donors and recipients, from preparing them for the operating rooms to maintaining a safe environment during the pandemic.


Kidney swaps are of growing importance as there continues to be long waits on kidney organ lists. In the past six years, the number of living donor kidney transplants in the U.S. has increased at least 24%, according to UNOS. The average wait for a person on the kidney list is three to five years. Swaps make it easier and faster for a patient to get a life-saving organ.


Bios on the rest of the donors and recipients can be seen here. All 10 patients are recovering comfortably from their surgeries. 


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