‘Kidney Swap’ Program Increases Living Donations

When former New York Jets running back Dennis Bligen was diagnosed with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS) in 2011, and told by doctors that he needed a new kidney, the news came as a shock.

For his long-time friend, Jill Christensen—who worked with him in the athletics department at St. John’s University in Queens, N.Y.—the news was a call to action. “I just knew I would get tested [to become a donor],” she says. But it turned out that Ms. Christensen’s kidneys were not an appropriate match.

Around the same time in Virginia, John Detwiler also was told that his kidneys were not a match for the daughter of his colleague in New York, who desperately needed a transplant. Independently, however, he and Ms. Christensen learned they could still help their friends by joining the National Kidney Registry’s “kidney swap” program, comprised of willing kidney donors who are not a match for their intended recipients, but could be a match for someone else.

In August 2012, after Ms. Christensen and Mr. Detwiler joined the “kidney swap” program, the chain came together. Mr. Detwiler was a match for Mr. Bligen; Ms. Christensen was a match for a man in Wisconsin; and a third living donor in New England was a match for the girl in New York. Four of the six surgeries took place at The Mount Sinai Hospital.

“Finding the right combination of donors and recipients is a bit of an art form,” says Antonios Arvelakis, MD, Assistant Professor of Surgery, who recently joined Mount Sinai to expand the institution’s participation in the National Kidney Registry “kidney swap” program. More than 7,700 patients in New York State are currently waiting for a kidney. The wait time in the region can be as long as five years.

“Kidney swaps are an important means to increase living donations,” says Dr. Arvelakis. “In part, by conducting more swaps between RMTI [Recanati/Miller Transplantation Institute] patients, Mount Sinai expects to increase the number of living donor transplants by 20 or 30 a year.” Mount Sinai conducted 74 living donor kidney transplants in 2012.

After the surgeries, Mr. Detwiler met Mr. Bligen and Ms. Christensen at Mount Sinai. “We were all just thrilled,” says Mr. Bligen. “You’d think that I would have been the most excited. But you know, it seemed like those two were just as happy to give an organ as I was to receive one.”

In November 2011, Mr. Bligen’s family created the Dennis Bligen Kidney Foundation to raise awareness about renal failure and the importance of kidney donation. Last month, the foundation made a major gift to RMTI to help increase the number of living donations, particularly in minority communities. “Most people are amazed by how prevalent chronic kidney disease is,” says Mr. Bligen.

In recognizing the importance of living donors, RMTI founded the Zweig Center for Living Donation in 2010, to provide comprehensive medical, surgical, and psychological care for those who donate a kidney or part of their liver. The Zweig Center is one of the largest living donor programs in the United States.

This article was first published in Inside Mount Sinai.

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