Kidney donation chain

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Barb Bunnell knew many years ago that she would need a new kidney.

”I have a family history of polycystic kidney disease,” she said.  

That disease, diagnosed in her early 30s, meant someday Bunnell’s kidneys would stop working.

“It usually becomes a problem in your mid-50s when kidneys begin to fail,” she said.

And early in their marriage, Barb and husband Ron, an executive vice-president at Banner Health, decided he would donate her a kidney. After all, they were compatible and he was willing.

“I not only wanted her to have a kidney, I wanted it to be my kidney,” Ron recalls.

But when the time came, Ron and Barb were in for a surprise.

“It was determined that because I had had children with him that I had developed antibodies and, therefore, would reject his kidney,” Barb remembers.

Devastated, Barb got on the kidney transplant list, but with more than 80,000 people waiting, she knew she may end up on dialysis.

“If I was going to be on dialysis, I was not going to be very mobile and it would have been a very different lifestyle,” she said.

So Ron and Barb began looking at the idea of paired donations with a live donor.

“You have an incompatible pair donating to another incompatible pair,“ Barb said.

Ron adds that the idea also frees up a donated kidney from someone in the traditional donation method, that is someone who had died in an accident, for example.

“We felt like we did not want to take a cadaver kidney out of the system, let that go to somebody who doesn't have a willing donor,” he said.

But, there was only a 2 percent chance of finding a compatible pair, one willing to donate and one in need. That is when Ron, Barb and Dr. Mike Rees hit upon an idea. What if it was more than another couple?

”To do a pair donation, you can do a pay-it-forward kidney chain,” Ron said.  

“Our odds improve to about 20 percent of finding a good match,” Barb adds.

Remember that is compared to a 2 percent possible match with just one other couple.

But, to start the chain, you need someone willing to give without needing a kidney in return. For Barb that was Matt Jones.

He was a perfect stranger, but also a perfect match, and he had volunteered do donate a kidney.

“His answer was always a person has two kidneys and you only need one, so why not?” Barb said.

The second possible problem, what if someone backed out along the way?

“But what we found is that just doesn't happen, people really do live up to their commitments,“ Ron said.

In fact as an article from People magazine shows, in a 20-person chain, no one backed out and the final donor is still waiting for a match to give to.

“So it is called a never-ending chain of donors,” Barb said.

And Ron said that means even though they are down to one kidney each, life has never been richer.

“It is not just about kidneys," Ron said. "It has changed our philosophical approach to life. We really believe in this whole belief that you should pay things forward.“

Since Ron is a VP at Banner, he has advocated for living donation chains here and of course you can always sign up to the donor network at kiosks in any Banner hospital or here.