When Rosalie Corbett received a new kidney on Jan. 23, she was a grateful participant in the nation’s largest paired kidney exchange.
“When I began to talk about the possibility of a kidney transplant at Christiana Care I never imagined that it would involve 35 paired exchanges and unfold over a period of three months,” said Corbett, 61, of Newark.
A paired exchange occurs when a living kidney donor is not compatible with the recipient and exchanges kidneys with another donor/recipient pair, often in another state. The exchanges reduce tissue and blood-type incompatibility as a problem for living-organ donation by family and friends. The exchange that Corbett took part in matched 35 living donors with 35 recipients and involved hospitals from Boston to San Diego. It was possible because her friend Susan Karlson of Fair Hill, Md., donated a kidney on Corbett’s behalf.
“I wake up every day feeling blessed,” said Corbett, who has polycystic kidney disease (PKD), a life-threatening genetic disorder that destroys kidney function and produces cysts throughout the body. PKD claimed the lives of several of her family members when they were in their 40s and 50s. In the United States there is no approved treatment or cure.
Without the paired kidney exchange program, Corbett could have waited three to six years for a kidney from a deceased donor.
“I wasn’t very hopeful until I enrolled in the Living Donor Kidney Transplant Program at Christiana Care,”
From the time she was 25, Corbett knew that kidney disease ran in her family. She made sure she exercised and was careful about her diet. Even so, as time went on she could no longer run 5Ks and half-marathons, and in her late 50s her kidneys began to fail.
As a result, she was placed on a transplant list in early 2014. She talked about her health issues with family and friends, and Karlson, a longtime friend, wondered what would be involved if she donated one of her kidneys to Corbett.
Karlson, who is the same age as Corbett, was in good health and years earlier had read about the first paired transplant chain. She was intrigued at how well most healthy donors seemed to live with one kidney.
Karlson also remembered the sadness of her mother being a widow by the age of 39 and losing three of her closest friends.
“I hoped for something better for Rosalie, and I could not imagine her facing death if a kidney transplant did not take place,” said Karlson. At Christiana Care, Karlson consulted with Emily Pruitt, RN, MSN, living donor coordinator in the Kidney Transplant Program, who was Karlson’s primary guide through the donation process. Karlson learned that a living-organ donation was Corbett’s best hope for long-term success and that most Americans are not healthy enough to be a donor.
As Karlson explored kidney donation, there were repeated blood tests, a complete medical history, a psychological evaluation and examination of her heart, liver, kidneys and lungs. “I spent most of the summer of 2014 being tested to make sure I was healthy enough to go through this experience,” Karlson said.
In addition, Pruitt gave Karlson information on how to contact other donors — and she did. “Kidney donors in general have a longer life expectancy than the general public, simply because they tend to take such good care of themselves,” said Karlson.
As a result of all the medical tests, the Kidney Transplant Team could tell from blood and tissue samples that Corbett and Karlson were not a good match for a direct kidney transplant. It was a disappointment to the friends, but they quickly made plans to join the paired donor network of the National Kidney Registry.
Pruitt tapped into the National Kidney Registry’s computer program to seek tissue and blood matches for Karlson, who was blood type O, and Corbett, blood type A. Blood O donors help recipients get matches in numerous transplant chains because they are universal donors to so many blood types. Corbett, on the other hand, was harder to match because her antibody response prevented her from accepting kidneys from some donors.
With the women’s medical information in the National Kidney Registry, matches began to appear in early December. Karlson and Corbett were scheduled for surgery on several occasions, but for one reason or another the transplants did not take place. Finally, on Jan. 23, Corbett received a kidney from an anonymous donor, and on Feb. 4 Karlson donated her kidney, which was flown to a recipient in Massachusetts.
Karlson and Corbett said they have great appreciation for the professionalism of S. John Swanson, III, M.D., FACS, chief of Transplantation Surgery, and the entire transplant team. “They were — and are — stellar,” said Corbett. “We are all blessed to have them in Delaware.”
Karlson agreed. “Everybody played their part beautifully, and they were so nice — I felt like the princess of the hospital,” she said.
As a result of their surgeries, Corbett and Karlson became part the nation’s largest multi-hospital kidney donation chain. It started Jan. 6 and included 26 hospitals before it ended March 26 with a recipient in Wisconsin. The chain began with Kathy Hart of Minneapolis, an altruistic donor who learned about the pressing need for living kidney donations from her yoga teacher. In an interview on ABC’s “Nightline,” she said that it wasn’t important for her to know the recipient or the person’s race, religion, age or gender — only that there was a need for kidneys in the U.S. and that she could be a part in filling that need.
The National Kidney Registry reports that 250 “good Samaritans” have made similar kidney donations, which have led to 1,300 transplants.
“All living-organ donors are heroes,” said Pruitt.
Corbett often feels like thanking Karlson and Christiana Care for the gift of life. Karlson said she hopes that the attention given to “the longest chain” causes Americans to at least think about donating their organs when they die.
“I feel grateful every day,” said Corbett, a volunteer with the Delaware Chapter of the PKD Foundation. “I have watched most of my family die of this disease, and Susan saved me from that. She’s given me a better life.”