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Live Organ Donors: February 20, 2012

Arlene McKen-Sutherland was in dire need of a kidney. She spent four grueling years on dialysis before finding a match last year. It came after several false starts.

“I was called a couple times before that, ‘oh there’s a match, there’s a match’ and I’d get all excited and then they’d be like ‘oh sorry, kidney was no good’ or something went wrong.”

It can be a heart-wrenching process. Prospective kidney recipients wait nationally three to five years for a kidney. The average time locally is 20 months. A key part of the process is finding a suitable match.

“Kidneys require a slightly closer match than any of the other organs. So when a donor becomes available, regardless of how long someone’s been on the list, the blood type certainly has to be identical; be a match but then antibody screening has to be done to make sure that it’s an appropriate match,” says Barbara Miller, Director of Kidney Transplant for Lee Memorial Health System.

Ninety-five thousand people in this country are waiting for a new kidney. Historically transplant centers relied heavily on deceased donors. Given the numbers, the idea of the living donor is getting new life.

“Either a family member or a friend and now actually sometimes a paired donation in which a patient will come to us and actually bring some potential donors with them,” says Miller.

Living kidney donation is increasing dramatically because of a donor organ shortage in the U.S. Each year some 6,000 people are having a kidney removed and giving it to someone else.

“A person actually can live a very long and healthy life with just one functioning kidney,” says Miller.

Aside from the risks associated with any major surgery, new studies show kidney donors don’t have a shorter lifespan than non-donors over the long haul. Although Arlene completed the process without a living donor, she is grateful for her new lease on life.

“Oh my gosh, there are no words, I am so, so, so thankful, just so grateful. I never thought of being a donor before but this person gave me a kidney.”

Much like the kidney recipient, the living donor must undergo a health assessment and compatibility screening before sharing this life-altering gift.