U.S. woman's altruism starts chain of five kidney swaps, extending lives

Fri Aug 3, 2012 4:59pm EDT
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By Lily Kuo

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A soon-to-be wed gay couple, a retired teacher and his wife, and two pairs of fathers and sons were among those whose lives were changed one extraordinary day this week when a 35-year-old single mother of four from North Carolina donated a kidney to a stranger in New York.

"I'm not losing nothing," Honica Brittman said this week, sitting in a blue and white hospital gown before surgery in which she would give, for free, the initial kidney in a chain of five kidney transplants at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center.

"To actually help somebody live a little bit, a lot longer, that's an awesome thing," she said.

Brittman, who decided to be part of the swap after learning she could not donate to a family friend because of incompatibility, represents what experts say is a critical and growing number of "altruistic" or "non-directed" donors, people willing to donate to anyone in need as long as their blood type, antigens and other factors are compatible.

The health dangers for kidney donors is believed to be low. The risk of death from the surgery is 1 in 1,700, according to the National Kidney Foundation, and life expectancy is said to be unchanged with one kidney.

High blood pressure is a possible side effect, and critics point out there is no systemic collection of national data on the risks associated with living kidney donations.

Experts say donors such as Brittman are key to helping the over 90,000 people awaiting a kidney transplant in the United States, according to the U.S. Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.

As in Brittman's case, donors can enable a chain of kidney exchanges that increases the number of people who can benefit from live kidney transplants, which typically last longer than cadaver kidneys.   Continued...

Honica Brittman waits to take part in a five-way organ transplant swap in New York, August 1, 2012. REUTERS/Keith Bedford