Donors and Recipients in a Medical Milestone Revealed

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Jill Chadwick

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           Five kidney transplant patients at The University of Kansas Hospital learned their living donor match today in a ceremony celebrating the longest living internal kidney donor transplant chain in the Kansas City area.  The chain was realized because of a patient named Tony Zins.  The Leawood, Kansas father of two young children needed a second transplant and no family members were a match.  He and his wife Christyn took to social media for help.

            “It’s a big ask, you know, to ask for a kidney,” Zins said. While several people responded to the social media post, an acquaintance and a close friend both passed all the necessary tests to be a donor.  Craig Nelson’s and Zins’ wives were in the same sorority at K-State.  Jonathan Sink’s and Zins’ wives worked together.  In the end, Nelson was a match.  “The payoff far outweighed anything that would happen to me,” Nelson said when asked about the risk.  “To be able to change someone’s life and actually see them look better the next day is pretty awesome.” 

Nelson was 100% all-in to help Zins, but Sink was also determined to save a life.  “If I could help somebody who’s suffering,” Sink reasoned. “Why not?”

“Kidney chains like this often begin with a single person willing to give their healthy kidney to someone in need,” Jaime Bartley, MSN, RN and organ transplant manager at The University of Kansas Hospital. “Everyone was eager to help when they realized the potential to save lives.” 

The transplant team took Sink’s test results and began the arduous task of comparing him to the patients at the health system listed for a kidney transplant.  People like Shawn Dawes from Manhattan, Kansas.  Sink was a match for Shawn. Shawn’s wife of ten years and mother to their 9-year-old son, Jennifer, said she would gladly offer her kidney to a stranger if it meant Shawn got a kidney.  “Being a spouse of someone living with kidney disease and having to watch him hook up to dialysis every evening is really tough,” Dawes said. 

The transplant team took Jennifer’s test results and went in search of a match.  They found one  …  social worker Cammy Houston from Wichita.  However, unlike others on the list, Cammy had a match from her close friend and co-worker, Beth Krissek.  During their matching research, the team discovered Beth could help another patient in need of a kidney.  But, would Cammy and Beth want to be part of a chain to help save more lives?

 “Well, I’m a social worker,” Cammy said in explaining her decision to be a part of the chain.  The mother of two grown sons and wife of 28 years said she was all about helping people. “The more the merrier!”

Her friend Beth, also a mom of two grown children and a grandmother agreed. “When she and I were presented with the opportunity to help more people with a donation … where my kidney would not go to her but to somebody else … she and I both said…we can’t say ‘no’.”

That extraordinary gift of kindness extended the chain to a total of four more people.   Two, who didn’t want to interview about the chain, but agreed to participate.  Krissek matched the kidney recipient and their donor was a match for Francis Belton from Wichita.

Francis had battled cancer and kidney failure.  The grandfather of six and patriarch of the family was reluctant to take a kidney from his son Dustin who eagerly wanted to donate.  Belton explained that kidney failure ran in the family and he worried his son might one day need both of his kidneys.  But Dustin, a former police officer turned information technologist, disagreed.  “If it helps him and it helps the other person, I’ve got no problem helping somebody in need.”

There was one more match to be made.  Stephanie Williams, a young woman from Independence was on the brink of dialysis from kidney failure.  She had no living donor and was waiting for a deceased kidney until the transplant team told her … Dustin Belton was a match. “I can’t believe that somebody is so willing to give such an important piece of themselves to someone they don’t even know,” Williams remarked.  “That’s just so amazing!”  Since her transplant, Stephanie is now engaged and planning a wedding. 

“None of this would have been possible without the selfless actions of the organ donors,” said Sean Kumer, MD, PhD, physician vice president of operative services at The University of Kansas Hospital. “It takes that first anonymous donor willing to donate a kidney to someone they don’t know and may never meet to get the chain started.”

“This event shows how creative transplantation can get to make sure a living donor’s desire to help a friend or family member is realized,” Amna Ilahe, MBBS, Director, Living Donor Program said. 

Diane Cibrik, MD, MS, medical director of kidney transplantation, noted live patient kidney donations provide better outcomes for patients, including longer life for the transplanted organ.  This, Dr. Cibrik says, was another motivating factor that led to staff working hundreds of hours to create the complex chain.

 “A chain of four patients is very common in transplantation.  Every time you add another person to the chain, it adds more planning.  That’s why this region has never seen a ten-person chain before.  Now that we have done a ten-patient chain, we feel we can work together to build larger chains including some chains that go on for years,” said Dr. Cibrik.

The transplant chain was realized over January 29 and 30. “It was an awesome two days!” Timothy Schmitt, MD, director of transplantation at The University of Kansas Hospital said.