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Chain of transplants gives 14 kidney patients new life

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 29, 2010

It started with a tragedy and ended with a priceless gift to 14 people.

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Jennifer Whitford, a 24-year-old mother of two from Sebring, Fla., died accidentally on May 24. Her mother decided to donate her organs, and a national kidney registry found a perfectly matched recipient: Brenda Wolfe, 44, of Mount Airy, Md. Two days after Whitford's death, one of her kidneys was transplanted into Wolfe at Georgetown University Hospital.

And that might have been the end of it: an everyday medical miracle.

But Wolfe's husband decided the miracle did not have to stop there. Earlier, he had offered to give his wife a kidney, but his tissue and blood type were incompatible with hers. So Ralph Wolfe had joined a paired-kidney exchange pool organized by Georgetown, Washington Hospital Center, Children's National Medical Center and Inova Fairfax Hospital; in doing so, he agreed to donate one of his kidneys to a stranger so some other stranger would give one to his wife.

Because Brenda had received her kidney from a deceased person, Ralph could have left the pool with a clear conscience. He stayed.

"A precious daughter, a precious daughter died and gave my wife life," said Ralph, 48, "and I'm going to be so selfish to say, 'I'm going to hold on to this kidney, just in case'?"

So, 13 days later, he donated a kidney to Gary Johnson, 63, a taxi driver from Hyattsville. Then Johnson's 61-year-old wife, Jeannette, donated one of her kidneys to a man in Arlington. That man's sister donated a kidney to a woman in Temple Hills, and so on.

In all, between May 26 and June 12, 28 people were involved in a remarkable chain of 14 kidney transplants. Many of the donors and recipients met for the first time June 15 at a hospital gathering.

"I'm fairly certain this is the largest [exchange] within a single city," said Jimmy Light, director of transplantation services at Washington Hospital Center.

Besides donors who joined on behalf of spouses, relatives or friends, two "non-directed" donors contributed to the exchange with no trade implied.

"There was a desperate need in the community to address those suffering from kidney disease," said one of the non-directed donors, Barbara Norton, 57, who recently moved to Rockville. "It was going to take . . . families coming together, communities coming together, caring for loved ones and even those you don't know." Norton's kidney went to Tracye Johnson of Waldorf; Johnson's cousin, David Young, gave a kidney to Vonda Brown of District Heights; Brown's daughter, Andrea, gave a kidney to Jason Crockett of Fort Washington. And so on.

"This is the start," said Rosalyn Carter, a transplant coordinator. "If we can do this here, we can constantly make it bigger and bigger and bigger."

Kidney transplants are major operations with the usual risks of bleeding and infection. Surgeons remove donors' kidneys laparoscopically, using a camera and a few small cuts into the belly. Most donors recover in two days and go on to lead normal, active lives.

There are more than 85,000 people waiting for kidneys on the national registry, and about 61 percent of them are African Americans, Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. These minorities have the highest need and the most trouble finding a compatible donor, said Keith Melancon, director of Georgetown's kidney/pancreas transplant program. More than half of the 14 recipients in the Washington exchange were minorities.

"There are patients out there that we cannot get transplanted by traditional means," Melancon said. "Through these exchanges we have consistently been able to get these minority patients transplanted."

With the paired-exchange system, "there's no such thing as an incompatible donor," said Light.

Regional paired-kidney exchanges have had enough success to inspire the creation of a national pool, said John Friedewald, chair of the United Network for Organ Sharing's committee for kidney paired donation. In February, UNOS sponsored a pilot project to develop a national computer database for paired exchanges. The group hopes to begin matching donors to recipients this fall.

For Cardinal Crusoe of Landover, his days on dialysis are over, thanks to the local kidney pool, which included his daughter, Denise Blackwell of Hyattsville.

Though her father calls her "Super D," Blackwell, 34, says she's no hero. Still, when the opportunity came for her to give, she knew "hands down" that she wanted to donate.

"You can't imagine just seeing a parent helpless after working as much as he do," she said. "Even when he was sick, he kept the household together."

Less than two weeks after his operation, Crusoe, 55, is making plans to return part time to his job as a counselor for the developmentally disabled.

"I have eight grandchildren that I love," Crusoe added, "and I want to be around for them."

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