Good Samaritan kidney donor to meet recipient

October 21, 2002

At 9:30 a.m. on Monday, October 21, Willie Morris, 53, of Chicago, will have his first opportunity to say thank you to Bill Van Pelt, 41, of Frankfort. Although they have never met, since June 20 Morris has been kept alive by a kidney that was donated--to whoever needed it--by Van Pelt.

The exchange was set in motion more than two years ago when Van Pelt decided that he wanted to donate one of his kidneys. In his job at Federal Express, Van Pelt made regular stops at a dialysis center where he saw dozens of people who depend on this technology to stay alive. "It was sobering to see," he recalled. "It did not seem like a fun kind of life."

About the same time he read a newspaper account of a teacher in North Carolina who donated a kidney to one of her students. He began to look into it and realized donation was possible and determined that this was "something I really wanted to do."

But in February, 2000, when he called one Chicago-area hospital, they "did not take me seriously," he recalled. On his third call, this time to the University of Chicago, he found doctors willing to listen. "They took the time to understand," he said, "and realized I really meant it."

They also took time to think about it. Transplant physicians at the University had never received a serious request like this and had no protocol in place for handling such an offer. Following Van Pelt's offer, transplant surgeon J. Richard Thistlethwaite, MD, PhD, worked with ethicist Lainie Ross, MD, PhD, to set up guidelines for how a "good Samaritan" donation such as this should be handled.

They decided that within certain limits, altruistic donation was acceptable, even laudable, and began to design the best way to go about it. The donor had to be sincere, with appropriate motives, able to pass a rigorous psychiatric screening and well informed of the risks. The donation had to be free, anonymous and without restrictions. The donor would receive no compensation (the recipient's insurance would cover medical costs) and could not chose who would receive the kidney or even be told who received it without the recipient's permission.

The kidney would be allocated as if it came from a cadaver donor--going to the person highest on the Hospitals' waiting list who was biologically compatible with the donor.

The physicians agreed, however, that if both donor and recipient were willing they could meet each other once the initial period of surgery and recovery were complete, at least one month after the operation.

Morris, from the South Side of Chicago, was at the top of the recipient list. His kidneys failed about six years ago, leaving him dependent on dialysis. His wife, two daughters and four sons, plus his brothers and a few friends all volunteered to donate but were not eligible, so he had been waiting list for more than five years. "The waiting," he said, "took a toll on me."

Morris worked for 28 years for the Chicago Transit Association and three years for the Post Office. He had always planned to retire at 45 and spend his time fishing and hunting. He came close, retiring at 46, but was suffering from advanced kidney disease by then, which left him too sick and tired to do the things he had always looked forward to. Instead, he spent 4 hours on dialysis, three times a week and felt sluggish in between sessions. He also had frequent complications. "I was praying for a kidney," he said.

Surgery for both patients went smoothly. Thistlethwaite removed Van Pelt's kidney laparascopically, leaving only minimal scars. Van Pelt recovered quickly and left the hospital after only two days--although he advises future donors to enjoy a third day of inpatient pain medications.

Within a few weeks, he returned to playing tennis. He was back at work within six weeks and now feels completely normal. "It wound up being very 'get-through-able'," said Van Pelt. "The most excruciating part of the whole process," he added, "was getting to it."

"There's a plan in place now," he added, "so the next person won't have to wait two years."

Robert Harland, MD, associate professor of surgery and chief of kidney-pancreas transplantation at the University of Chicago, performed the transplant for Morris, which also went smoothly. Morris recovered well, without complications, and now returns to the hospital for blood tests once a week and for clinic visits once a month.

He reports that, despite taking about 20 pills a day to prevent rejection, he feels "fabulous, better every week." He hopes to fulfill a lifetime dream soon, getting his pilot's license. And, in anticipation of going hunting, he has been raising two beagle puppies.

Morris has been waiting for a long time to thank Van Pelt. "This was a marvelous thing he did," said Morris. "He's like a Superman to me."

Van Pelt is also eager to meet Morris. "I want to hear his story," he said, "see how he's doing."

In the United States there is a significant shortage of organs for transplant. More than 46,000 people are waiting for donated kidneys, but only about 12,500 organs become available each year, including about 4,500 from living donors. There are about 60 transplant programs with systems in place to handle "non-directed" or altruistic donors, which remain quite rare. A study of 118 people who volunteered to donate a kidney found that only seven remained willing and met all psychological and medical requirements.

The risks of harm to the donor are low, but not zero. An estimated three out of 10,000 living kidney donors die as a result of the procedure and about one out of ten experience complications.

"It's the ultimate in self-sacrifice and generosity," said surgeon Thistlethwaite. "It's not for everyone, or even one-percent of everyone. I have to admit I have huge respect for anyone as willing and eager, well intentioned and determined as Mr. Van Pelt. My hat's off to him."

"I was warned that it would be more difficult than anything else I would ever do," said Van Pelt. "Now I've done it, it went fine and I feel really great."

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