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Young Altruistic Kidney Donor Starts a Chain Reaction Across the Country

Drs. Dolamu Olaitan, Piotr Witkowski, and Yolanda Becker take the left kidney out of Rachel Garneau, an altruistic donor. Dolamu Olaitan, MD, (on the right) Piotr Witkowski, MD, and Yolanda Becker, MD, take the left kidney out of Rachel Garneau, an altruistic donor.

Rachel Garneau could have done what most college students do after final exams -- take a trip, relax, or start a summer job. Instead, the 20 year old from Elmhurst, Ill. took advantage of her spring break to give one of her kidneys to a complete stranger, starting a national chain of kidney swaps and giving kidney patients at the University of Chicago Medical Center new hope for a match. As an altruistic donor, Garneau got nothing out of the arrangement except for the satisfaction of saving the life of someone she's never met, thousands of miles away.

Altruistic kidney donor Rachel Garneau Rachel Garneau

Yolanda Becker, MD, professor of surgery and director of the kidney and pancreas program, was amazed at Garneau's persistence in trying to donate a kidney. "There is a lot of good that will come downstream from Rachel's donation," Becker said.

Garneau's kidney went to a patient in New York City who desperately needed it. That patient had a loved one who was willing to donate, but whose kidney didn't match. Instead, the New York donor sent a kidney to a patient in Madison, Wisconsin.

Kidney chains like this are arranged by the National Kidney Registry, which take detailed information about kidney transplant patients and try to give willing donors the possibility of exchanging kidneys with strangers on behalf of their loved ones.

Because of Garneau's donation, the University of Chicago can now register 30 patients without donors on the National Kidney Registry to look for a match. Many people waiting for a kidney transplant don't have matching donors, and thousands of people die every year waiting for kidneys.

Transplant surgeons prep Rachel Garneau's kidney for the procedure. Rich Cummings, procurement coordinator, and Piotr Witkowski, MD, prepare the kidney to be shipped to New York City.

Rachel Garneau is the youngest of five kids, and has always been interested in helping others less fortunate than herself. She donates blood on a regular basis, has her organ donor card signed, worked abroad at as a volunteer, and hopes to join the Peace Corps someday.

To be accepted as an altruistic kidney donor, Rachel had to talk with a social worker and a psychiatrist at the hospital, and pass a battery of required tests. They screened her to make sure she was fit for this type of donation. She passed the tests, and was determined to give.

The University of Chicago Medical Center participated in its first kidney chain in March, when a donor from Loyola gave to a patient here, his wife gave to someone in New York, they donated to New Jersey, and they donated to California -- all in one day. A few weeks later, Becker and the transplant team arranged a swap with four people in Illinois, where a Chicago man donated to someone in Peoria in exchange for a kidney from Peoria for his wife.

The surgeons, nurses, and staff of the kidney transplant program hope to continue matching up willing donors with patients who need kidneys. Kathy Davis, RN, transplant coordinator who organized the hospital's effort in this swap said the logistics of joining kidney chains and swaps are huge. "The amount of time and effort that go into making sure everything is okay is worth it," she said. "It's intense and exciting."

Read the Chicago Sun-Times stories:

June 2011