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Thankful for a New Life this Holiday Season

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November 29, 2010

Chicago -

Paired kidney exchange creates special bond for four patients

Thanksgiving was extra special this year for two kidney transplant recipients who are grateful for a new chance at life after years of struggling with kidney disease. Northwestern Medicine transplant surgeons coordinated a two-way paired exchange transplant that gave Carlos Cerda, of Lockport, Ill., and Sybil Bryant, of Schaumburg, Ill., new kidneys. A paired exchange matches one incompatible donor-recipient pair to another to enable an exchange.

Cerda’s road to transplant began last year at a company holiday party when his friend and coworker Scott Kalkis, of Plainfield, Ill., offered to donate his kidney upon learning of his illness. The two men were a compatible match and planned to proceed with the transplant when Northwestern Medicine clinicians approached them about participating in the paired exchange program. Neither of the men hesitated to say yes.

“We now include some compatible matches in the paired exchange registry; if they are willing, they can help others too,” said John Friedewald, MD, transplant nephrologist at the Northwestern Memorial Hospital and assistant professor of medicine and surgery at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Paired exchanges provide greater access to organs to more patients, faster. A living donor kidney tends to work sooner and lasts longer than a deceased organ and the wait time is much shorter for the recipient.”

At the same time, Bryant was waiting for a kidney. When her brother Alex Lucas, of Sauk Village, Ill., first learned that his sister needed a transplant, he immediately offered to be her donor. “This is the only sister I’ve got, I’d give her my right arm,” said Lucas. “When I found out she was sick, I said ‘what are you waiting for, let’s get tested.’”

Lucas was evaluated and physicians told him that he did not meet the medical criteria to be a donor, citing his weight as a major issue. Determined to help his sister, Lucas dedicated himself to a healthier lifestyle and worked to shed excess pounds. After losing approximately 40 pounds, he returned for another evaluation and was approved as a donor. It was then that Lucas and Bryant found out that they were not compatible blood types.

“It bothered me until they told me about the paired exchange program,” said Lucas, who immediately signed up for the paired exchange program, which paired him and his sister with Cerda and Kalkis. “Even though my kidney didn’t go to my sister, it helped someone else.”

Cerda received a kidney from Lucas and Kalkis donated to Bryant. The four patients met for the first time following their surgeries the day before Thanksgiving. Cerda and Bryant agreed that after years of being sick and on dialysis, they immediately felt better post-transplant. “It transformed everything for me,” said Cerda. “I was tired all the time from dialysis. I didn’t know how long I’d be able to work. I felt 100 percent better after surgery.”

Bryant is looking forward to returning to work and living a life free of dialysis. “Dialysis is like a part time job, even on vacation I had to go to dialysis,” said Bryant. “This is the best Thanksgiving gift. I’m so blessed; it’s a second chance at life. I didn’t take care of myself before, but watch me now. I’m going to be a health nut.”

For Kalkis, the experience was a rewarding one that brought his family closer together and gave him a different outlook on life. “There are no words to explain how it feels, seeing Carlos and Sybil smile is all the meaning in the world,” said Kalkis. “Others should do this and not think twice.”

Paired exchange is a relatively new concept in the United States, but is becoming increasingly more common with close to 750 paired transplants occurring across the country last year. To date, the transplant team at Northwestern has performed 40 paired exchanges, with more than 30 occurring in 2010. “By entering willing compatible matches into our database, we are able to find more matches and expand the number of transplants,” explained Friedewald. “We are trying to continually innovate to make transplants available to more patients.”

To learn more about the living donor and kidney transplant programs, call 312-695-0828 or visit the Northwestern Memorial Transplantation Center’s website.

Last UpdateFebruary 8, 2011