Life-Saving Strangers Spur Transplant Miracles

A chain of life-saving transplants turns strangers into family.

Oct. 20, 2008— -- Carey Barrett, who lives with his wife Monique and their two children in the Atlanta suburbs, made the decision to become a kidney donor.

"I have a beautiful wife, fabulous kids and a great job," the 42 year-old said. "And I have the ability to donate a kidney, so I really wanted to get involved and make a difference."

He is just the latest in a growing chain of people deciding to donate their kidneys to strangers as part of a program inspired by the generosity of one man who in July 2007 made the unusual decision to give his kidney to a complete stranger.

Barrett's donation went to Brenda Chapman, a 41-year-old from Wharton, Texas, who had given up hope when after 2½ years, 10 donors failed. Barrett was the perfect match.

"I had given up, so when I got the call, I didn't believe it, and I still don't believe it," Chapman said. "He is not a stranger anymore. He is definitely going to be my best friend."

Barrett's decision to become a donor came after he saw an ABC News report last summer on the domino-like series of kidney transplants across the country, incited by Matt Jones.

In July 2007, Jones, a 29-year-old father of four, made the unusual decision to give up one of his kidneys to help someone in need.

"You only need one to survive," Jones said. "And there's a lot of other people out there who could use the other one you have."

Watch Barbara Pinto's report tonight on "World News Wth Charles Gibson" at 6:30 p.m. ET.

After running his information through a nationwide database, doctors found a match for Jones' kidney in Barbara Bunnell -- a grandmother from Phoenix, who'd battled kidney disease her entire life.

Click here for more information on the database.

The hereditary kidney disorder she lived with had claimed the lives of her mother and her grandmother, both of whom died in their mid 50s. Her husband, Ron, had hoped to donate his kidney to his wife, but tests showed he wasn't a good match.

"The fact that she gets this kidney, we'll grow old together," said Ron Bunnell. "We'll see our grandchildren grow up. It's just a miraculous gift."

Barbara Bunnell underwent surgery in July 2007 -- since then, she has returned to a normal, fulfilling life.

"Our youngest grandson was born one week before I went into surgery, and he is walking now and he just had chickenpox," she said. "You get into this normal life very quickly."

Gift Keeps on Giving

His wife's gift led Ron Bunnell to the University of Toledo Medical Center, where he sat in a hospital bed ready for surgery to donate his kidney to someone who needed it.

"I've transcended the nervousness. I'm totally relaxed," he said, glancing over at the woman in the hospital bed across the room.

The woman was Angie Heckman, a woman he'd never met before, who was to receive his donated kidney.

Angie spent most of her 32 years on dialysis. She was diagnosed with kidney disease at a young age, and spent 12 hours a week hooked to the blood-cleansing machinery to stay alive. She is also on drugs to control her blood pressure, which has skyrocketed as the result of her kidney disease.

To Heckman, the generosity of Bunnell's gift is overwhelming.

"We don't know each other, and he wants to help so his wife could be well. He's just passing it on," she said, her eyes welling with tears.

"This is the first day of the rest of her life," said Laurie Sarvo, who nervously paced around the room during her daughter's surgery last year.

"He gave me my daughter back for a long time to come," she said.

Computers Bring Donors Together

This first chain of transplants is not only the result of amazing generosity but of something called paired donation. A potential donor who wants to give a kidney to a friend or loved one but is not a biological match can now be paired with an appropriate recipient. A computer program connects donors and kidney patients nationwide.

In this case, the computer matched Jones, who lives in Michigan, with Barbara Bunnell, from Arizona. Her husband, Ron Bunnell, who was not a suitable donor for his wife, was perfect for Heckman in Toledo.

Sarvo, Heckman's mother, who was not a match for her daughter, gave her kidney to another perfect stranger two months later -- touching off a chain of six more transplants. Barrett is the latest link in a parallel chain of donations.

"The simplest way to explain it is 'paying it forward' when it comes to organ transplantation," said Dr. Michael Rees, medical director of the Alliance for Paired Donation.

"The future that I see in America is there will no longer be such a thing as a willing incompatible donor," said Rees. "If you're willing, we're going to get you a transplant."

While a family member is usually the best match, doctors said in some cases a stranger can be an even better match. That means fewer life-threatening complications, and more lives saved.

And a kidney from a living donor, as opposed to a cadaver donor, will also last longer -- 16 years, as opposed to eight, according to Rees.

Since the program began last year with Jones, 67 transplant programs across 22 states have begun to participate, and 30 additional programs are in partnership talks with the organization.

"My hope is that we will get 3,000 kidney transplants a year someday on top of what we already have," Rees said.

Jones, whose single donation triggered this movement to donate, also holds high hopes for future success.

"Eighteen people die a day because they didn't get a transplant," Jones said. "Maybe we can get it down to 15 a day, then 10 a day and maybe we can get enough chains going so no one is dying every day."

For Heckman, her transplant marked a new beginning; she is now enrolled in college, studying to be an ultrasound technician. She has new dreams and ambitions for the future.

"There are not even words to say how thankful I am," she said to Bunnell, the man she calls her "guardian angel."

"I don't want her to pay me back," Bunnell said after donating. "I just want to keep it going. Keep the chain going."

The chain has not only brought many back to health but has built life-long bonds. The chain of donors all attended Jones' wedding, and describe one another as family.

"I don't even think of it, that she has my kidney," Bunnell explained. "I just think of her as someone that I love."

With new donors signing up to give the gift of life, the hope among doctors and patients lives on -- that this cascade of lifesaving miracles, sparked by one selfless act of kindness -- will continue to inspire others and live on indefinitely.

For more information on paired donors:

This is an updated report from July 25, 2007.