In 2017, 46-year-old stay-at-home dad Brian Glennon decided that he needed to do more to give back. For many people, giving back would mean simply donating to charity or volunteering. But Brian chose to do something that required a much greater sacrifice. He donated one of his kidneys to a complete stranger.
When asked why he chose to donate his kidney, Brian simply replied, “Well, we all have two, and we only need one.”
Brian’s act of altruism set off a chain reaction, resulting in the longest chain of living kidney donors in the United States.
Nationwide, over 100,000 people are waiting to receive a kidney transplant. The average wait time is about 5 to 7 years, and about 20 people die each day waiting for a donor. Oftentimes a patient in need of a transplant will have a family member who wants to donate to them, but they might not be biologically compatible.
The Chain Begins
This was the case with Haley Tsai, whose kidney function was severely compromised by lupus, and her daughter, Jocelyn. Jocelyn was not a match to her mom, but Brian was.
After Haley received a kidney from Brian, Jocelyn “paid it forward” and donated her healthy kidney to a stranger. That recipient’s family member also donated their healthy kidney to a stranger. This kind of exchange, where a donor’s kidney goes to an unknown compatible recipient, is called “paired donation.” In this particular case, the chain of paired donations continued until it was 46 donors long.
All of the transplants were done at Saint Barnabas Medical Center (SBMC), home to New Jersey’s first Living Donor Institute. Saint Barnabas created the Living Donor Institute 15 years ago, with the goal of increasing the number of living organ donations. As a result, 162 of the 337 kidney donations performed at SBMC in 2017 were from living donors. And 45 of those 162 were from paired donations.
According to Dr. Shamkant Mulgaonkar, Chief of the Renal and Pancreas Transplant Division at SBMC, a kidney from a living donor will last significantly longer than a kidney from a recently deceased donor, and to receive a kidney from a living donor can be truly transformative.
“As soon as the transplant takes place,” he said, “especially living donor transplant, these are different people.”
Meeting the Kidney Donors
Participating in a paired kidney donation requires a great amount of selflessness. Donors and recipients usually never meet, so even though a donor knows that their loved one is getting a kidney, they have no idea who their healthy kidney went to.
In June of 2018, several of the donors and recipients in the chain met each other for the very first time.
Alben Fischer could have donated directly to his ex-father-in-law, but participated in the chain in order to help more people. Fischer described an instant feeling of affection for his recipient when they met.
“He wanted to shake my hand, and I just wanted to embrace him […] so I just knocked his hand out of the way and gave him a hug.”
Many of the donors and their family members had difficulty finding words to express their gratitude.
“Thank you for saving my life,” Haley Tsai said to Brian, at their first opportunity to speak.
“Wow,” Brian said. “What do you say to that?”
Brian is an especially rare type of donor, because he had no connection to anyone who needed a kidney. SBMC only gets about 2 or 3 of these “altruistic donors” each year. However, thanks to their effort in promoting living donation, that number is increasing.
“With living donation, I think the beauty of it is that it not only benefits the organ recipient, but it benefits the organ donor,” Brian said. “My life feels more complete.”