World's Largest Kidney Exchange Gives 14 People New Chance at Life

Donors, recipients and doctors meet today, after 28 surgeries.

ByLisa Stark and Bradley Blackburn
June 15, 2010, 6:10 PM

June 15, 2010— -- In the nation's capital, a circle of strangers is now connected for life.

Beginning last month, 14 donors gave their kidneys to 14 people who desperately needed them in the largest kidney exchange in history.

Watch "World News" tonight on your ABC station for Lisa Stark's report.

Between on May 26 , doctors performed a highly coordinated medical dance, conducting 28 surgeries over nine days in four different Washington, D.C. area hospitals.

Today, the donors and recipients all met for the first time in a room full of hugs, tears and gratitude.

One face that was missing from the crowd was the woman who started the chain, Jennifer Whitford, a 24-year-old Florida woman who died last month in an accident.

Her mother, Denise Milliken, chose to donate her daughter's organs, and she was there today to meet the woman who received her kidney, Brenda Wolfe, 44, of Mt. Airy, Maryland.

"It gives me comfort to know that Jennifer helped someone who really needed it," Milliken said.

Wolfe's grateful husband continued the chain, giving a kidney to Gary Johnson, 63, whose wife then donated... and on and on.

Click here to view a chart detailing all of the surgeries.

"The logistics are quite daunting," said Dr. Keith Melancon, director of kidney and pancreas transplantation at Georgetown University Hospital. "It is quite difficult to get all the pieces to fit together like a puzzle."

A majority of the people involved in the exchange are African-American, which is particularly important because many minorities struggle to find kidney donors. Of people waiting for a kidney, 61 percent are non-white, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Minorities have a higher "likelihood of building up these antibodies" that make transplantation difficult, Melancon said. "These large exchanges will allow more and more of those patients, the most difficult to transplant patients, to be transplanted."

Kidney Exchange Brings 28 Lives Together

Transplant chains are built as individuals agree to donate to a stranger so their loved one can be paired up with a compatible donor. The kidneys have given 14 very sick people a new chance at life.

"I was struggling before. Now I'm not struggling -- I'm actually living," Johnson said. "Nothing can compare to that."

The exchange brought together people from all over the country, stretching from California to Maine, and two of the living donors, Barbara Norton of Rockville, Maryland. and Jeffrey Wood of Westbrook, Maine, did so for totally altruistic reasons. They did not have a relative or friend in the chain but simply wanted to help.

"It's easy to be disillusioned in the world today," said Jeffrey Tucker, who received Wood's non-directed kidney. "It's nice to know there are still decent people left in the world who think about everybody, not just themselves."

"This exchange in particular shows the benefits of not only living donations, but also deceased donations. We need more of both," said Melancon. "If you have loved ones or friends or would like to donate a kidney, it's life-saving. So more people need to do this."

It's not the first time that the Washington hospitals have pulled off an ambitious kidney exchange. Doctors at Georgetown University Hospital and the Washington Hospital Center performed a 13-person exchange just last December and a seven-person exchange in the summer of 2009.

"I don't know if we've reached the limit, but I'm guessing that 10 to 20 is about as much as you can do at any given time," said Dr. Jimmy Light, the director of the hospital's transplant services.

"I'm just privileged to be able to do these things," he said. "I can't think of any other thing where I can make such a difference in people's lives and feel so good about it.

Click here to return to the World News page.

ABC's Conor Finnegan contributed to this report.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events