16-way kidney swap could be history-making

April 28, 2010 (CHICAGO)

The eight donors and eight recipients appear to comprise, at the very at least, the largest organ swap at a Chicago hospital ever done. The surgery was performed over a period of three days, and all the patients were reportedly doing fine.

Usually called domino and kidney exchanges, organ swaps happen when hospitals are able to match incompatible donor-recipient pairs to other incompatible donor-recipient pairs. And in fact, they're being done more and more often to increase the living donor pool.

Two of those involved in the exchange are Roman Catholic nuns. One is a donor, one is a recipient, and it turned out they were compatible. Thirteen nuns were tested as part of the living donor pool, and when one of their own needed a transplant, another sister stepped up.

"Well, I wouldn't say that it was a little bit scary. But most of the time it was very rewarding," said donor Sister Edyta Kraweczyk.

"I really feel grateful for whoever volunteered to be tested, and especially for those who have such a generous heart and went through that for me," said recipient Sister Francesca Witkowska.

Many of the patients have already been released from the hospital. The most recent of the surgeries was done Monday.

One of the female recipients had been on the waiting list for nine years.

Two families who were strangers until Tuesday are now linked forever through 26-year-old Nicole Smith.

Smith originally had hoped to donate a kidney to her stepfather, Walter Perez. They kidney instead went to Maria Isho, as part of the 16-way swap.

"We never thought Nicole, my daughter would win that honor, and she did," said Perez. "But she wasn't compatible with me."

Nicole was completely compatible with Isho, the first match she was able to find in 9 years.

"It's amazing, a miracle," said Isho. "I said to her, 'I have 5 sisters - now I have 6."

Dr. Joseph Leventhal, the director of the living donor transplant program at the hospital, said that all the donors are doing well and have left the hospital. The recipients were discharged this morning, according to Dr. Leventhal.

Leventhal performed many of the surgeries, including the ones on the two nuns.

About one third of living donors who come in to Northwestern Memorial are incompatible with their intended recipient, so paired exchanges are becoming more common, as they allow a greater number of people to receive the organs that they need.

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