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Historic Kidney Transplant

In Washington, D.C. this past week, thirteen patients suffering from life-threatening illnesses were given a new lease on life. In the span of six days, skilled surgeons performed an unprecedented and record-setting 26-person kidney transplant.

The massive transplant was made possible by a simple, yet innovative type of program referred to as a "paired kidney donation," or sometimes as a "domino surgery." In the simplest version of a paired kidney donation, one incompatible donor/recipient pair (A) is matched to another incompatible donor/recipient pair (B). Then, donor A gives recipient B a kidney, while donor B gives recipient A a kidney. In this way, two patients who otherwise could not find a suitable donor can get kidneys.

This particular paired kidney donation was a bit more complicated, truly meriting the name "domino surgery." It began when St. Louis resident Irene Otton couldn't find a suitable donor – in fact, tests showed that only about 5% of the population would have a kidney that matched her needs. So while Irene's husband Tom was more than willing to offer one of his kidneys, it wouldn't have helped Irene one bit. At the same time, a D.C. woman, Roxanne Boyd Williams, also couldn't track down a suitable donor. And as it turned out, Tom could donate a kidney to Williams. Williams' father agreed to donate one of his kidneys – but it wasn't a match for Irene. Williams' father's kidney ended up going to another woman. Eventually, after lots of juggling, doctors found Irene a kidney. Tom flew out to D.C., gave a kidney to Williams; Irene flew out with him, and got a kidney from a complete stranger. By that point, 13 perfect matches had been made.

There are currently over 88,000 people on the national kidney waiting list and less than 17,000 transplants are performed annually. According to the National Kidney Foundation, paired donation will one day allow for an additional 3,000 living donor kidney transplants a year nationwide.

Learn more about kidney transplants.

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