For three Duke University Health System patients, July became an early Christmas when they received kidney transplants that owed much to a woman’s decision to give one of her kidneys to someone she didn’t even know.
The choice, made by a state-government environmental specialist who asked to be identified as Julie, gave doctors in Duke’s transplant unit a way around an impasse that was keeping men from two families from getting the surgery they needed to avoid dialysis.
Frankie Locklear, 51, and Steven Mullins, 30, both had relatives willing to donate kidneys to them, but initial testing showed the would-be donors weren’t good matches. By volunteering in March, Julie set off a chain reaction that saw her give a kidney to Locklear, Locklear’s sister Tammy donate to Mullins and Mullins’ mother Kathy donate to Russell Bridgers, a 48-year-old Gulf War veteran.
The six met for the first time Friday, during a Duke-arranged gathering that showcased the potential of what doctors call “paired exchange” organ donations even as it gave the recipients the chance to express their thanks. There were tears, and hugs.
“It was God-sent, and I appreciate it,” Bridgers, who’s from Fayetteville, told Kathy Mullins, who’s 60 and from Lebanon, Virginia.
Though such chain-reaction donations aren’t all that common, they’re far from unheard-of at Duke, home of the largest living-donor transplant program in North Carolina.
Surgeons there perform from 170 to 180 kidney transplants a year, but the majority involve the transfer of an organ from someone who’s died to a recipient who’s waited five to six years.
The living-donor program is small, each year producing between 40 and 60 transplants. Out of those, there might be three or four chains that ensued after doctors and nurses found a way around compatibility logjams, said Aparna Rege, an abdominal transplant surgeon and Duke School of Medicine professor.
For a lot of reasons, “there’s nothing better than a living donor,” as doctors can be sure the donor’s in good health and the recipient is getting an undamaged, “absolutely pristine kidney” that’s more likely to last, Rege said.
Julie, a 44-year-old from Raleigh, said she’d been thinking about volunteering a kidney “for years,” spurred on by occasional news reports of a person donating one to a friend of relative. The idea took firmer root last year, and early in 2017 she called Duke to ask whether its transplant program accepts what doctors call “altruistic donors.”
Tests, physicals and interviews followed in March.
“I don’t have a good explanation for it other than I wanted to help somebody,” Julie said. “And I don’t know ... this year, just because things in the world are a little off-balance – at least I feel they are – doing something now seemed like a way to make someone’s life better.”
She conceded that the decision caught her family “a little off guard,” and that her husband had it worse than she did during the surgery because he was the one in the waiting room awake and wondering if everything would turn out OK.
Both recipients and donors receive long-term monitoring from Duke. The donors typically can leave the hospital in a day, returning to a clinic a week later for an initial check. Further checks, involving lab work, follow in six months, a year and two years, Rege said.
The follow-up regime’s more intensive for recipients, of course. They start off needing to return to a clinic at weekly intervals for doctors to check their kidney function. Later, they’ll taper down to monthly visits.
Recipients are “with us for pretty much the rest of their lives,” Rege said.
But for Bridgers, who’d been on dialysis for more than six years and was no stranger to needing endoscopic surgery, all that’s a fair trade for a healthier and more active life.
“Everything went well,” he told Kathy Mullins. “It was shaky at first, but I kept telling them this was God-sent and nothing’s going to happen to my kidney. And guess what? My kidney’s good. It’s going well.”