< SIX DEGREES OF TRANSPLANT

Organ donation and transplantation have steadily become so intertwined with the cultures of the developed world that it is difficult NOT to find connections to our own lives. Just this weekend while spending time away with family, I personally fell upon two different and poignant true life transplant tales.

In the first, the woman arranging the new lease on my daughter’s (a college freshman) first apartment was unusually helpful – almost motherly in her patient approach. We had established an easy working relationship on the prior day when I scouted the building ahead of my daughter. Despite being kind, her thoroughness and professionalism had provided me with confidence and reassurance that my daughter would be in a well run facility. I was therefore stunned when her placid face and smooth toned voice changed suddenly as she looked at my responses to the form on which I promised to back up my daughter’s credit. The words she spoke made no sense; “I pray for you every day”, she said.  I did not understand the sudden appearance of tears either. But then she asked; “Are you really a transplant surgeon?” and her story spilled out.

I had been right in my assessment of her maternal nature. Her own daughter was a transplant recipient, having received her father’s kidney 30 years ago at the age of 8. The family had traveled to the U.S. seeking the transplant that was unavailable at home. Tragically, the donor/father/husband was murdered by terrorists back at home a few years later. Subsequent successful life led to the young transplant recipient’s natural desire for procreation which carried risk for the potential mother and her kidney. So, the woman/leasing agent became a surrogate mother for her own grandchild, to protect their daughter and the transplant. Years later the kidney still functions well, the daughter works full time as a professional and is the mother of a successful young person. Now I believed this woman’s description of her daily prayer for all transplant surgeons.

Secretly hoping that my daughter was as moved by this woman as I was, I returned to find my young niece back at home. Again amazed, I listened while she recounted the adventures of a classmate who had recently missed many weeks of school because of a live donor kidney transplant. Now she was happy that he was back most of the time, except for doctor’s visits. He was even well enough to join her in physical education activities approximately 50% of the class time!

Either I have the same type of powerful, natural attractant for people connected to transplantation + donation that I do for mosquitoes, or these fields of medicine/translational science have had enormous impact on society. The facts clearly support this success. Just in kidney transplantation, recent data show growth to an incredible number of prevalent (currently alive with a functioning transplant) patients just in the U.S. of 179,000 patients in 2010. (By the way, note that only 15,000 recipients were alive in the era of the leasing agent daughter’s transplant – a rare and marvelous success story stoked by the support of her mother/gestational carrier.) There is no simple means of equivalent, accurate tracking for patients with other types of transplants.

My own experience in speaking to audiences about these topics is that roughly 25% will raise hands to indicate that they have personal contact with these worlds. Still more subjective confirmation that it would take less than 6 degrees to connect most of us to transplant. Would that just as many people will join organ registries, especially during this April – Donate Life month. I WILL love to fall upon and recount even more dramatic – and true – stories yet to come.

I am currently grateful to the leasing agent for permitting me to share her story with you.

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