In August, Eric Parrie donated his kidney to a woman he'd never met. But before he parted ways with his organ, he had some things he needed to say to it first.
So the 26-year-old Yale law student wrote about a dozen letters to his kidney, an organ he said he'd always taken for granted. He even settled on a name for the kidney: Dick Posner.
"Dear Dick Posner, first off, I want to say thanks. From what I can tell, you've done a pretty good job these last 25 years," Parrie wrote in his first letter on February 1, 2011.
Why "Dick Posner?" The name actually belongs to a real person, a judge in the 7th circuit Court of Appeals who has written about the legal aspects of organ donation. Parrie said thinking about giving his kidney away made him see it more like a person.
"It just made me think more about my kidney, which is a body part I've never really thought about before," Parrie said. "And it was a way of not taking myself too seriously through the whole process."
Even if Parrie didn't want to take his decision too seriously, for Laura Cheaney, of Sulphur, La., it was a lifesaver.
The 30-year-old mother's kidneys had failed her after she gave birth to her son in 2007. She had been on dialysis for almost two years when Parrie decided to donate his organ.
"You can't really give a better gift to someone, especially someone you don't know," Cheaney said. "It really saves their life."
Living organ donation is somewhat rare. About 6,000 people volunteer to donate one of their kidneys every year, according to the National Kidney Registry.
Meanwhile, more than 92,000 people are currently awaiting kidney transplants in the U.S., according to the National Kidney Foundation. Most people who donate give their kidneys to family members or friends. The National Kidney Foundation counted about 165 anonymous donations in 2011, compared with 1,100 kidneys donated to siblings and nearly 900 donated by children to their parents.
The need for kidneys is so great that last year nearly 5,000 people died while waiting for a transplant.
While kidneys can come from donors who have died, organs from living donors are preferable. Evidence has shown that kidneys from living donors last longer once they are transplanted and are often a better match for the recipient.
Dr. Ian Carmody, the transplant surgeon at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans who removed Parrie's kidney, said living donor kidneys start to work almost immediately once they are transplanted into a recipient's body, sometimes even before the surgeon can finish the operation.
"You can see that it's working, which is different from a kidney from a dead donor," Carmody said.
Parrie said he had no idea a person could survive after giving one of their kidneys away. But in 2009, he read an article in the Atlantic magazine about organ donor chains, the idea that one person's donation can start a chain of organ transplantation that can save dozens of lives.
After that, he said he couldn't shake the idea of donating what he had come to see as his extra organ.
"It seemed really silly, almost like arithmetic. I have two, you only need one, and someone else really needs it," he said.
So the New Orleans native called the Ochsner Medical Center, saying he wanted to donate his kidney.
Rebecca Guillera, senior transplant coordinator at the hospital, answered the phone that day. It wasn't the first time she'd gotten a call from someone wanting to donate an organ. But she said Parrie was far more informed and determined than most. She talked with him repeatedly about the risks of the surgery and that he had the right to change his mind at any time.
"The most important thing is to know the facts and make sure the donor really understands what they're getting into," she said.
Not just anyone can go to a hospital and give away a vital organ. Guillera guided Parrie through the required process, checking into his medical history and scheduling two psychiatric evaluations for him. Still living in New Haven, Parrie did a battery of medical tests at a hospital there. For a guy who'd never spent much time in the hospital before, it was difficult at times.
"I had tried to donate blood many times before and failed, either because I fainted or they couldn't find a vessel," Parrie said. "I did pass out a few times during the blood tests."
And then there was the time when doctors wanted him to collect his urine for 24 hours.
"I basically had to walk around Yale law school with a giant jug of pee," he said.
But he said he never stopped believing it was the right thing to do.
"You're headed for a new place, Dick Posner, and you're going to make that place better just by being there," Parrie wrote to his kidney on February 13.
Parrie passed the medical tests, and a physician committee at Ochsner began to review a list of potential recipients for his kidney. On August 9, Guillera called Cheaney to let her know that she had been selected. She got the call just as she had hooked herself up to the dialysis machine.
"I just cried. I couldn't believe it was happening. I'm getting a kidney from an anonymous donor? Really? It was mind-blowing," she said.
A week later, the surgery was scheduled.
In his last letter on August 17, Parrie wrote, "Dear Dick Posner, tomorrow, 9 AM. Just another day at the office. You've come a long way my friend. Don't worry. I'll be in touch when you're on the other side. Much love, Eric."
The surgery was successful, and after a few weeks, both Parrie and Cheaney recovered. Parrie went back to law school, where he said he can still ride his bike, play basketball and drink alcohol, just as he did when he had two kidneys. Cheaney said she's now healthy enough to keep up with her son and take care of her family.
Typically, hospitals take great pains to ensure that anonymous donations stay anonymous. But both Parrie and Cheaney decided they wanted to meet and Guillera put them in touch. On January 2, Parrie, back in New Orleans on break, rode his bike to Ochsner, just as he had on the day of the August surgery. Cheaney, her husband Matt and son Devon made the three-hour drive from Sulphur to the New Orleans hospital.
"I was thinking, 'Man what am I going to say to this guy?' I just wanted to let him know how much he's done for us, me and my family," she said. "He's just a magnificent person."
Parrie said the choice to be a living donor may not be right for everyone, but he hopes more people will consider it as a safe and realistic option. He wants others to know it doesn't take a saint to donate.
"It takes diligence and courage, but doesn't take a superhero," he said. "You can be someone who believes in loving your neighbor as yourself and this is a way to make it happen."
What did the real Dick Posner have to say about all this? Parrie wrote an email to him, telling him about his kidney donation and the letters he had written.
"I got an email back from his assistant. She said, 'Judge Posner was pleased to hear that since up to now the only thing named after him was a house cat,'" Parrie said.