Changing Lives Through Donating Kidneys to Strangers

We’re about to take you inside the operating room to witness history in the making. A chain of complete strangers making incredible sacrifices to give the gift of life. Nightline co-anchor Byron Pitts has the story.

What you’re witnessing is months in the making. Because this kidney is only one part of a transplant chain that is so far 30 links long. Today will require eight surgeons and a team of transports to link five different hospitals in four different states to break the record in the nation’s longest multi-hospital kidney transplant chain. What was started three months ago all boils down to this one day and if all goes as planned the final two recipients of the chain will each be given a new lease on life.

Mitzi Neyens, 77 years young, has been waiting one year for a kidney. “I could have done dialysis for the rest of my life but I didn’t want to do that.”

She and her husband have been married for 53 years. For most of it her kidney disease was manageable. “She was doing real fine up until about a year ago and then all of a sudden it started to really go downhill.”

So the University of Wisconsin hospital enrolled her in the National Kidney Registry’s paired exchange program. It works like this: say 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 computers are scanning for other potential matches around the country in a complicated daisy chain of potential donors and recipients. But if a donor backs out or a recipient gets sick, the entire chain will collapse like dominoes.

At the end of this day if all goes well, 34 kidneys will have been swapped between 26 different hospitals over the course of three months. Today Mitzi hopes to be the final link in the chain.

Her new kidney will be coming from Matt Crane, who lives outside Philadelphia. “This person’s getting my kidney, if they all of a sudden have an affinity toward Crystal Light, this kidney’s working great.”

He’s donating on behalf of his wife Michele. “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 that.”

“The news that I was going to be able to be transplanted this month, I was flabbergasted.”

But in order for Michele and Mitzi’s transplant to happen, everything needs to go according to plan with the other five surgeries taking place today.

First up, Baltimore, Maryland, where LaTwanya Goslee is donating a kidney on behalf of her brother Charles. “My kidney’s supposed to go to Pittsburgh, so I always joke that if it’s a Steelers fan they’re going to wake up bleeding purple.”

Once the surgeons remove her kidney, it’s driven 250 miles to Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh. It’s going to Gary Watson. In exchange, his daughter’s friend Christine Brock is donating her kidney. Christine is wheeled off into the OR. About three hours later her kidney is ready to be sent on its way.

From Allegheny County Airport it will fly 368 miles on a private plane to New Jersey. A courier picks it up. The kidney is given to the person waiting for it in New York. The donor kidney from New York will head to Philadelphia, where Michele and Matt are heading to the hospital at the University of Pennsylvania to get ready for their surgeries. Matt meets with his surgeons first.

While Matt’s surgery is under way, Michele learns her kidney is in transport. “He spoke with the hospital in New York and they said the kidney looked great.”

Matt’s kidney is successfully taken out. It will fly to Chicago’s O’Hare airport and from there will be driven 133 miles to Madison, Wisconsin, where Mitzi is waiting for it. But with kidney transport, anything can happen. No one knows that better than the man behind today’s big chain, Garet Hill.

“When you’re organizing a swap, you need to have a lot of different information at hand immediately.”

He’s also got a kidney story of his own. His daughter, Samantha, needed one when she was 10.

“Both my wife and I were incompatible with our daughter. It’s a devastating blow to both of us. When you see your child on dialysis and you’re helpless—you can’t give her your kidney—it creates a level of frustration that’s hard to imagine.”

Frustration that drove him to create the National Kidney Registry’s paired exchange program.

“How steep was the learning curve for you?”

“Immense. I learned everything I could about kidney transplant and paired exchange.”

The very foundation of his model was built on altruism. It all starts with one generous person with no vested interest.

“That level of generosity is hard to describe with words and we’ve had 250 Good Samaritan donors come through the National Kidney Registry and start chains and have gotten over 1,300 people transplanted.”

Kathy Hart is the Good Samaritan at the start of what could be this record-breaking chain.

Helping a neighbor cut their grass, that’s one thing, but donating a kidney to a stranger?

“I think the fact that it was to a stranger is one of the parts that people have a really hard time grasping. It actually even makes it easier. From the very beginning I didn’t have any judgment attached to who gets it or who’s deserving and I have an opportunity to give and why wouldn’t I?”

“It’s amazing to think how many people are benefiting from that one person’s donation.”

Back in Philadelphia, Michele gets her new kidney. Just out of surgery himself, Matt is overcome when he learns his wife Michele’s surgery was a success. “I got everything I wanted today.”

He’s got a message from Mitzi in Wisconsin who’s waiting for his kidney. “Hang in there Mitzi, I’m hoping you’re feeling as blessed as I do.”

Meanwhile, Mitzi gets prepped for surgery.

Are you getting emotional thinking about this journey that you’ve been on?

“As of yesterday it really sunk in that I was getting this kidney. I honestly in my heart of hearts didn’t think I’d ever qualify.”

Her new kidney arrives. Mitzi’s husband waits anxiously. About an hour in he gets an update.

68 lives have been changed in what the surgeons have called a chain of love—now the longest multi-hospital kidney chain in U.S. history.

It is a huge operation but it’s driven by hearts and minds of people, people that want to do it. If there was no love in this it wouldn’t happen.

For Nightlife, I’m Byron Pitts in Madison, Wisconsin.

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