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Kidney Transplant Patients Bound by Chains of Love

Kidney exchange imageFour years ago, Matt Crane was devastated when he learned that he was not a kidney donor match for his wife Michele, who was on dialysis after a long struggle with type 1 diabetes.

Fortunately for Michele, 52, her brother was a match. But, after only a year and a half, her body showed signs of rejection and, in May 2012, she was relisted on the organ transplant list. As fate would have it, Matt was given a second chance to help his wife. In an unprecedented “chain” of events, last month Penn Medicine patients Matt and Michele played crucial roles in what is now the nation’s longest multi-hospital kidney transplant exchange in history.

The chain, involving 25 transplant centers and 68 patients – 34 donors and 34 recipients – was complete in late March when Michele received a kidney from a donor in New York, and Matt’s kidney was flown to the final recipient waiting in Madison, WI. But the chain itself started almost three months prior, when an altruistic donor at the University of Minnesota donated her kidney to a complete stranger in late January.

Kidney Chain 357

"Matt’s donation not only made it possible for his wife to get a healthy kidney, but he also saved a perfect stranger,” said Ali Naji, MD, PhD, surgical director, Kidney and Pancreas Transplant Program at Penn Medicine, who performed Michele’s procedure. “These chains are made possible only through acts of love. That 34 people are willing to step up for their friends and family in need, and that the pieces of a puzzle like this can come together, is a miracle."

You first heard about this story on the April 14 edition of ABC’s Nightline. The nine-minute segment followed five hospitals in four states, the last links in the historic swap. I was privileged to be there from the last planning call the day before the surgeries through Matt and Michele’s initial recovery period at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. 

The evening prior to Matt and Michele’s surgeries, transplant coordinators at the five remaining hospitals joined a call led by the National Kidney Registry, a non-profit organization that works to pair patients in need of a kidney transplant with healthy donors across the country. In a matter of minutes, representatives from the NKR and each hospital involved in the last phase of the chain reviewed the process and timeline for the next day, including the scheduled time for surgeries, when the donor kidneys would be picked up and received, transport plans, and more.

As a communications professional, I was in awe of the efficiency and accuracy with which this all took place. The plans were set and everyone was on board. The following morning, healthy kidneys from four donors would follow this path:

  • Baltimore, MD to Pittsburgh, PA
  • Pittsburgh, PA to New York, NY
  • New York, NY to Philadelphia, PA, and
  • Philadelphia, PA to Madison, WI

The healthy organs were transported via couriers, private plans, and commercial airlines to arrive at their destinations in time for transplant.

The next morning – the final day of surgeries – multi-pronged teams of surgeons, nurses, transplant coordinators, and transports worked together to ensure a successful end to the swap.

Teams across the country meticulously packed, unpacked, labeled, tracked, and transported the life-saving organs. Checklists were reviewed and signed at every stage of the process. Calls were made whenever one of the kidneys moved, informing the waiting teams and patients on the other end that a donor’s kidney had been successfully removed, packed and was on its way, or that the recipient’s new kidney arrived successfully at its destination. Coordinators and nurses watched carefully on the NKR’s tracking page as a GPS shipped with each organ showed the packages moving slowly across the country.

The day unfolded like clockwork, and late in the afternoon, Matt and Michele’s families were overjoyed to hear from their surgeons that the procedures had gone beautifully. In Matt’s recovery room, his family and friends gathered together to wait for a first visit from Michele – a wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend.

“I got everything I wanted today,” Matt said in the Nightline segment, adding a note of encouragement to the recipient waiting for his kidney in Wisconsin. “Hang in there… I hope you’re feeling as blessed as I do right now.”

On her way to recovery a short time later, Michele’s nurse took a quick detour and brought her by Matt’s room for a brief hello. Overcome by tears of joy and with the news that Matt’s kidney had arrived safely in Wisconsin, Matt, Michele and their families celebrated the success of the day.

Today, Matt and Michele, the parents of two children in their 20s, are back at home and recovering well.


Photo caption 1: Penn patients Matt and Michele Crane reunite one day after kidney transplant surgery. 

Photo caption 2: Sixty-eight patients, 25 transplant centers, one massive kidney transplant chain. The lifesaving chain ended with two Penn patients after a New York donor's kidney was delivered to surgeons at HUP for Michele Crane, and her husband's kidney traveled to a recipient waiting in Wisconsin.

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