Lourdes participates in nationwide kidney donation chain

When Orlando Gonzalez, 50, of Camden needed a kidney transplant, his wife, Betty, stepped up to donate. Unfortunately, Orlando and Betty’s blood types did not match. So the staff at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center—the only organ transplant facility in South Jersey—entered them into a nationwide pool of other incompatible donors and recipients maintained by the National Kidney Registry.

On July 24, the Camden couple participated in a donor chain involving 20 people and 10 hospitals from coast to coast. Orlando received a new kidney from a donor in California, while Betty donated her organ to a patient at a hospital in central Pennsylvania. Lourdes transplant surgeons Dr. John Radomski and Dr. Ely Sebastian performed the surgeries.

Orlando, who suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure and had been on dialysis for more than four years, was reluctant to have Betty donate.

“I didn’t want her to do it because I didn’t want anything to happen to her,” he said. But once the swap was planned, “I started to cry. I was so happy about it.”

“The longer you delay, the more damage it does to your organs,” said Betty, 37, as she recovered with her husband from the surgery. “I wasn’t compatible with him, but my kidney will be going to someone who is in the same situation. It’s like two people winning.”

Janine Vallen, a Lourdes transplant nephrology nurse practitioner, said the chain was challenging because five of the recipients had high antibody counts. Such high levels make it difficult for these individuals to find a donor because of an increased chance their bodies would reject the new organ.

“With entries such as our pair, it enabled these individuals to find a match and be transplanted. It was with the hard work, flexibility and dedication of everyone involved that allowed us to be a part of this chain,” said Vallen.

“It is an amazing feat that 10 pairs of patients were able to successfully donate and get transplanted within a period of 48 hours at centers across the country,” added transplant nephrologist Dr. Ari Chakravarty, medical director of the Kidney and Pancreas Program at Lourdes. “With paired kidney exchange, patients no longer have to just keep waiting on the deceased donor list or keep hoping to find another living donor eventually. Working with the New Jersey Sharing Network and the National Kidney Registry, they can be matched with other living donors.”

More than 26 million Americans suffer from kidney disease. A kidney transplant can replace the need for dialysis.

Nearly 97,000 people are waiting for a new kidney, yet fewer than 17,000 receive one each year. About 4,500 people die each year waiting, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing.

Kidneys may come from deceased or living donors. Living donors are preferred, said Vallen, as they are healthy individuals and the organs can last twice as long as those from deceased donors. Living donors can also speed up the transplant process; the waiting list for a deceased donor kidney can be more than five years.

Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center participated in the first successful paired exchange kidney transplant in the Philadelphia region in 2010. Since then, the number of transplant chains has grown significantly. Last year, a chain involved 60 people at 17 hospitals and took four months to complete. The Gonzalezes chain, like many others, began with an altruistic donor—someone who wanted to donate a kidney but did not have a recipient in mind.

Betty Gonzalez, a mother of two teenagers who works at a Camden hospital, said, “You always hear about breast cancer,” she said. “If people were more educated about kidney disease, they would consider donation.”

Orlando Gonzalez hopes to return to his jobs in medical transportation and in the maintenance department at the Cherry Hill Mall. Orlando will have more freedom to travel and enjoy life, but will need to manage his diabetes and hypertension, as well as have regular checkups at Lourdes. Still, his outlook is much better than if he had stayed on dialysis, noted Dr. Chakravarty.

“The Gonzalezes are heroes,” said Dr. Chakravarty. “Because they chose to participate, 10 people were able to get transplants. I encourage everyone to consider organ donation. There is no greater gift of life.”

Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center is the only facility in southern New Jersey performing kidney, liver and pancreas transplants. To learn more about organ transplantation at Lourdes and the paired exchange program, visit www.lourdesnet.org or call 1-888-LOURDES (1-888-568-7337).

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