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A friend in need

Lyndeborough man donates kidney to stranger to save his uncle

For Dan Taylor, it was a waiting game. His kidneys had been failing for more than a year. He was on the list for a kidney transplant, but was looking at a waiting list of three to five years to get access to a compatible organ. And while he wasn’t on dialysis yet, it was a decision that was looming.

Taylor, a Dunstable, Mass., resident, and his doctors looked to family members who might be compatible and willing to donate one of their own, healthy kidneys. Several related family members were willing, but were disqualified for reasons related to their health. Finally, a healthy, willing donor was located — Shane Meltzer of Lyndeborough, who is related to Taylor by marriage. There was just one problem: Meltzer was not a match for Taylor.

There was another option, though, Taylor’s doctor’s told him. If both Taylor and Meltzer were willing, they could participate in a “swap” — Meltzer donating his kidney to a stranger somewhere in the county, who had a donor willing to contribute a kidney that would go to Taylor.

“I said, ‘I have to go home and talk about it with my wife,’” recalled Meltzer in a combined phone interview with Taylor on Thursday. “But in the end, it was a really easy decision. We said, ‘Actually, this is better. It helps more people.’”

With Meltzer on board, the two were entered into a search for compatible donors with the National Kidney Registry. When the swap had been arranged, both Taylor and Meltzer were surprised to learn that they wouldn’t be participating in a swap with more then two other willing partners — they would be part of a chain of 10 donors and 10 recipients from across the country, in a chain which stretched from University of California San Francisco Medical Center in San Francisco to Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Massachusetts, where Meltzer and Taylor had their operations on March 12. Meltzer’s functioning kidney went to a hospital in Chicago, and Taylor received a kidney from Cincinnati, according to a Lahey Hospital press release.

Even though his kidney was sent to the middle of the country, Meltzer still feels as though his sacrifice was a direct benefit to Taylor, he said. “I almost feel as if it were my kidney in Dan,” he said.

That’s not an uncommon feeling, said Andrea Sorcini, a senior staff member in the urology and transplant department at Lahey Hospital, who performed Meltzer’s surgery. “This is a very subjective thing. There are patients that are happy to give to their loved ones, that might be uncomfortable giving to a stranger. But in the end, every donor realizes that with their donation, their loved one is going to benefit.”

This kind of swap is something that is fairly new to the medical field, explained Sorcini in a phone interview Friday, and has only been implemented in the past handful of years. But in that time, it’s become a popular resource. The chain that Meltzer and Taylor were involved with, for example, marked the 1,000 exchange through such a method for the National Kidney Registry.

“The main problem for transplants, is there is an exponentially increasing need,” said Sorcini. “We have more recipients than donors available to give organs.” The logistics involved in arranging a swap or chain are enormous, added Sorcini, since it is rare that the swaps can be arranged so that the surgeries are preformed at the same hospital. However, it is the best way to ensure that willing donors don’t fall through the cracks just because they don’t match with their loved ones, he added. “It’s a difficult job, but it allows the utilization of the organs that we have. Years ago, if you weren’t compatible, that was it. You just had to find another willing donor.”

The rate of success for kidney transplants is high, added Sorcini, when a matching donor can be found — the odds are above 90 percent that the new organ will take. Many who have failing kidney’s can continue on for years with the help of dialysis, which manually does the kidney’s job of cleaning the blood of toxins, but going on dialysis increases the patient’s chance of dying by 5 percent each year. It also decreases their ability to live a normal life, since they are required to travel to the hospital three times a week for dialysis, a process which takes several hours.

Taylor was on the cusp of having to go on dialysis treatments, he said. If his transplant had been two weeks later, he would have had to start the dialysis process. Having watched his own father go through dialysis later in life, it wasn’t something he was looking forward to, he said. Particularly since he did not want his own children, two young girls, to have to watch him go through it.

In the days leading up to the operation, one fear was at the front of both men’s minds they said: The possibility that Dan might reject his new kidney.

For Taylor, it wasn’t just the health concerns that came with the new kidney not working, he said. “For Shane to have gone through all that, just for the kidney not to work, that was my biggest fear,” he said. It was a concern for Meltzer, too he said. Not only did he worry that something might go wrong with Taylor’s donation, but he also worried about the recipient of his own kidney, too, he said.

“The one drawback is that when you have so many people involved, there’s more room for something to go wrong,” he said, about participating in the donation chain. Both men said they would like to meet the people that were involved in their swaps — with Taylor wishing to thank the person that donated his kidney, and Meltzer hoping to see someone thriving from a successful transplant. The transplant process is anonymous, the two said, but there will be an opportunity down the line to meet willing participants.

But in Taylor’s case, the process went smoothly, and now, two and a half weeks after their surgeries, both Taylor and Meltzer are on the road to recovery. Taylor, who had been dealing with constant fatigue due to his kidney failure, said that he felt like he had a new lease on life.

“I have so much more energy now,” he said. “Even immediately after the surgery, everyone, even the doctors, were telling me how much color I had in my face. I’m just so grateful.”

“I think the main thing is that this is a way to maximize the utilization of organs,” said Sorcini. “That’s a lot of logistic work, but this is not about how much work I or the National Kidney Registry does, it’s about the generosity of the donor. It’s because of them that everything that can happen. Their generosity is what allows us to do this. Without their decision to give part of their body to someone else, it couldn’t happen. I think that’s the core of the issue on organ donation.”

Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ex. 244, or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter @AshleySaari.

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