At 77, Mitzi Neyens had become an expert in waiting. For most of her 53-year marriage to her husband Bill, her kidney disease was manageable, until suddenly, it wasn’t.
“It wasn’t that serious then but gradually over time it became more and more serious,” Bill Neyens said. “About seven or eight years ago we went to Europe, went to the Hills of Italy. So she was doing really fine up until about a year ago. Then it started to go downhill.”
Mitzi was in otherwise good health, but because of her age, she wasn't considered for the deceased donor list to get a new kidney. Her only option was to find a living donor.
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So the University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison enrolled her in the National Kidney Registry’s paired exchange program, which was her only chance for a match.
The program works like this: If you need a kidney, but your friends and loved ones aren't good matches, one of them can agree to donate a kidney on your behalf to someone else who they do match with. Meanwhile, the program’s database scans for other potential matches around the country in a complicated daisy chain of potential donors and recipients. But if a donor backs out or if a recipient gets sick, the entire chain will collapse like dominoes.
Today, 34 kidneys have been swapped between 26 different hospitals over the course of three months. Because everything went to plan, each recipient was given a new lease on life. Transplant patients, both donors and recipients, needed to be healthy or the whole chain would have fallen apart.
“Nightline” was there when eight surgeons and a team of transporters linked five different hospitals in four different states to break the record for the nation’s longest multi-hospital kidney transplant chain on March 26.
Mitzi Neyens was the final link in the chain. Her new kidney came from Matt Crane, 55, who lives outside of Philadelphia.
“I drink Crystal Lite like there’s no tomorrow,” Crane said. “This person who is getting my kidney, if they suddenly have a like for Crystal Lite then the kidney is working great.”
Crane donated on behalf of his wife Michele, 53, whose Type 1 diabetes caused her to go into kidney failure. Matt wasn't a match for Michele, which he said was devastating, so he wanted to help her by donating to the National Kidney Registry.
“If it took for me to give my kidney to somebody in order to get Michele a good healthy kidney, I’m ready to do it,” he said.
This was Michele Crane’s second kidney transplant. Her first one came from her brother, but her body rejected his donated kidney after two years.
“So at that point I was put on the deceased donor list and I knew that I was headed down the same road again,” she said.
Like Mitzi Neyens, Michele Crane said she “had a lot of confidence” that going on the paired exchange program would increase her chances of being able to get a kidney faster.
“I was still told that… it would be possibly a one to two-year wait on this list, and I was told that just a few weeks ago,” Crane said. “And so, I can’t even tell you, the news that I was going to be transplanted this month, I was flabbergasted.”
But in order for Crane and Neyens’s transplants to have been successful, everything needed to go according to plan with the other five surgeries that happened on that same day.
The first surgery was at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, where Latwanya Goslee, a mother of four, donated a kidney on behalf of her brother Charles who had already received his new kidney.
“My kidney is supposed to go to Pittsburgh and I always joke that if it’s a Steelers fan they’re going to wake up bleeding purple,” Goslee said, referring to the colors of her hometown NFL team, the Baltimore Ravens.
Once the surgeons at the University of Maryland removed her kidney, it was driven 250 miles to Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, where it was transplanted into Gary Watson, a 65-year-old retired heavy equipment operator. In exchange for Watson’s kidney, his daughter’s friend, Christine Brock, a 44-year-old paralegal, donated her kidney to the chain.
From there, Brock’s kidney was picked up by a courier and flown 368 miles on a private plane to Teterboro airport in New Jersey. Then it was picked up by a third courier, who took it to a hospital in New York City. Since the New York donor surgery was successful, the kidney headed to Philadelphia for Michele Crane’s transplant.
As this was all taking place, Michele and Matt Crane headed to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where they were both prepped for surgery. After Matt’s kidney was removed, it was put on a commercial flight to Chicago. From there, it was driven 133 miles to Madison, Wisconsin, for Mitzi Neyens.
All of this wouldn't have been possible without Garet Hil, who created the National Kidney Registry's paired exchange program after his daughter Samantha needed a kidney when she was 10 years old.
“Both my wife and I were incompatible with our daughter,” he said. “It was a devastating blow to both of us… when you see your child on dialysis and you can’t help, you’re helpless, you can’t give her your kidney, it creates a level of frustration that’s hard to imagine.”
The foundation of Hil's system is built on altruism; 250 good Samaritans have donated their kidneys to strangers across the country. Kathy Hart, a 48-year-old attorney from Minneapolis, was the first altruistic donor in this chain. She said she got the idea to donate her kidney after she heard a yoga instructor’s son needed one. She thought she was probably not a match but would donate to him. Then she said she thought, if she would donate to him, then why not donate to a stranger, so she decided to join the National Kidney Registry.
“I think the fact that it was to a stranger is one of the parts that people have a really hard time grasping. But it actually even makes it easier,” Hart said. “From the very beginning I didn't have an attachment to the outcome or any judgment attached to who gets it or who's deserving… I have an opportunity to give, and why wouldn't I?”
As a result of Hart’s contribution, Michele Crane was able to have a kidney.
Today, 68 lives have been changed in what surgeons have called “a chain of love.”
“It's an honor to be able to do this kind of work and it’s thrilling and it’s rewarding but there are a tremendous number of people that have made this happen,” Hil said. “There’s no way I could have done this alone… we’ve got a lot of people who’ve contributed and brought this thing to where it is and… I’m thankful for all those people.”