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Donor sparks chain of kidney transplants

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One person's desire to save a stranger's life sparked a chain of surgeries involving 10 individuals and five kidney transplants at regional hospitals in less than a week.

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The chain of life-saving surgeries came through a regional "kidney swap" effort involving Sanford Medical Center in Fargo and Abbott Northwestern Hospital and University of Minnesota Medical Center at Fairview, both in Minneapolis.

The Minneapolis donor who started the chain sought to donate a kidney to a stranger after it was too late to give one to a relative in need of a transplant.

The donor was matched with a potential recipient in Fargo, who received the transplant July 13. By Monday, four other transplants had been done as part of a paired-exchange transplant program.

Through the exchange, an individual signs up to donate a kidney in the name of a friend or relative who needs one but who isn't a match to that individual.

By donating the kidney to someone else, the desired recipient is then guaranteed to receive a different donated kidney from some other donor who matches.

The chain continues as that donor's friend or relative is also guaranteed a kidney from yet another donor in the chain.

Through admittedly confusing connections between the pairs of donors and recipients who matched others like them, doctors successfully administered the 10 surgeries and five kidney transplants among the three hospitals.

Two of the surgeries took place in Fargo, while four took place at each of the Minneapolis hospitals.

Hospital officials said all patients involved are recovering well. Because the donations were anonymous, the individuals were unavailable for comment.

But such a chain of transplant surgeries is very rare, said Dr. Bhargav Mistry, a Sanford Health transplant surgeon who administered the Fargo surgeries and oversaw the regional kidney swaps.

"I have been doing transplantation for about 15 years, but this is a totally new concept," Mistry said.

The idea of kidney-swap programs has been around only for about three years in certain areas of the country.

The regional program Sanford is involved with began nine months ago. A pilot program is currently available nationwide.

This chain is also among one of the largest known in the United States. The largest to date - involving nine transplants and 18 surgeries - was administered by Johns Hopkins in Maryland, Mistry said.

The match process for kidney donations relies on compatible blood types and antibody levels, so friends or relatives often don't match their chosen recipient.

Allowing kidney swaps through anonymous strangers can prompt a higher chance that the transplants can take place, Mistry said.

It also reduces the burden on the national donor registry, which relies on kidney donations from the deceased, Mistry said.

Nearly 80,000 patients are listed on the national registry, and they often must wait an average of three years for a kidney, he said.

"I think we'll see a significant difference in the next 10 years," he said of the impact kidney swaps, like this, might have.

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