Kidney donation chain a delicate deal, but everyone wins



Posted on December 24, 2010 at 4:46 PM

Updated Friday, Jan 4 at 10:44 AM

SEATTLE -- Four people are taking part in a kidney donation chain at Virginia Mason Medical Center. It's a delicate agreement for organ transplants: if anyone backed out, the deal would be off for all of them. But in this case, everyone wins. 

On Christmas Eve in the hospital lobby, the patients and their family members all pose for a group photo. It is a picture of generosity and gratitude. All of them, in their own way, are beneficiaries of a something called a kidney chain.

"I've read over the years how long the donor lists are, for people needing organ transplants," says Ginny Gardner. For the simple reason of wanting to help someone, the 57-year-old woman from Seattle decided to donate her kidney.

"It's something I could do. It's one place I could help," said Gardner. "For all the things you read that you feel helpless? This is some place I did not feel helpless."

It turns out a complete stranger, Judith Fraser, needed one. The normally healthy 66-year-old, from Hamilton, Montana, suddenly suffered kidney failure two years ago.

"They don't know what caused it," says Fraser. She was enduring dialysis three times a week, for four hours each time.

"My siblings were willing to donate, but they're type A blood, I'm type O. Ginny is type O. And so I can only receive from an O," says Fraser.

But the waiting list for a new kidney is long. Judith was able to move up that list and receive Ginny's kidney, because of Judith's brother Hugh. While he wasn't a compatible donor for Judith, he was willing to pay it forward and donate his kidney to someone else.

"They asked Hugh, 'Do you want this kidney chain to continue?' And he said, 'I just want my sister to get a kidney as quick as she can,'" Judith recalls.

"She had to turn in some chips to get higher on the list. And I was the chip," says Hugh Gardner. 

The lucky recipient of Hugh's gift was David Willis, a 57-year-old technology strategist with Microsoft. David's kidney failure clouded his thinking, and frequent dialysis forced him to take leave from his job.

Three days after his transplant, how did Willis feel?

"Awesome! They're letting me go home tomorrow," Willis says. "I can't believe how quickly you recover."

Together all four of them represent a chain of life, and they encourage others to pay it forward.

Ginny Gardner and Judith Fraser had their operation two weeks ago. Both are out of the hospital. Hugh Fraser gets out of the hospital Christmas Eve. David Willis goes home Christmas Day.