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.