Strangers Donate Kidneys to Keep Country's Longest Donor Chain Going

PHOTO: Dr. Jayme Locke, director of the Incompatible Kidney Transplant Program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Medical Center, talks with the Pickel family about transplant options.
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An encore presentation of this "Nightline" report will air on "Nightline" Nov. 27 at 12:35 a.m. ET

It’s Sunday afternoon, and Dr. Jayme Locke, director of the Incompatible Kidney Transplant Program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Medical Center, is preparing for a marathon.

“We are going to be doing 14 operations this week,” she said, checking in on her patients.

Sprinkled among the rooms up on the eighth floor are patients waiting to receive the gift of life -- a new kidney. Also among the patients are the living donors bearing those gifts, people who are willingly giving up one of their two kidneys to help a stranger.

“We are anxious, all of us are, to hear the story of our recipient,” said Pastor Derek Lambert, one of the donors. “I don’t know if this is perhaps a young mother who’s feared leaving her kids, or a young man who is unable to provide for the needs of his family and this would give these types of individuals a new lease on life.”

They are all part of an intricate living donor kidney transplant chain that began last December. By the end of the week, 21 patients will have received kidney transplants making it the longest, on-going, single-institution chain in the country. The catch? In order to receive a kidney from a stranger, each recipient must have someone in their life willing to donate a kidney to a stranger in their honor to keep the chain going.

For donor Courtney McLaughlin, the decision to donate in her cousin’s honor was easy. “She’s been on a waiting list for a deceased donor for years and with no end in sight, and we’ve been on this list for three months and here we are,” she said.

More than 100,000 Americans are currently in need of a kidney transplant. For some, the wait for a kidney from a deceased donor can stretch as long as eight to 10 years. These living donor kidney chains can expand the pool of both donors and recipients and have the possibility of shortening wait times to just months. They also can provide recipients with more compatible matches and younger organs.

A year ago, Katelyn Pickel, an 18-year-old high school student, suddenly became severely ill, wound up on dialysis and required a kidney transplant. Her father Earl was a potential match for her, but by the two of them joining the chain, two things happened: Katelyn received a kidney from a much younger donor, and someone else waiting on the list was able to receive her father’s kidney.

“I have prayed to God that he would send an answer to my child. And He has,” Earl Pickel said. “How can I refuse someone else when somebody stepped up for me?”

Mickey Little had suffered from a rare kidney disease for more than a decade and he had become dependent on dialysis that kept him tied up to a machine for 8 hours every night. A previous transplant that failed after just a few days had left him with a less than one percent chance of finding a match. It took a while, but Dr. Locke was able to find him not only a match, but a perfect one.

“I won’t be restricted because of dialysis,” Little said. “I should be back to a normal life again which is amazing to me.’

“[He] certainly beat the odds,” said Dr. Locke. “He found his one in a million.”

Click on the infographic below explaining UAB's kidney donation chain to see a larger version. Story continues on Page 2 after the jump.

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