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Updated: Friday, 07 Dec 2012, 5:44 PM CST
Published : Friday, 07 Dec 2012, 4:56 PM CST
AUSTIIN (KXAN) - In the Kidney Transplant Center at St. David’s North Austin Medical Center, the staff is used to performing transplants between donors and recipients who are friends or family members.
Staff members’ eyes get wide, though, when someone walks in the door offering to give up one of their two kidneys to save the life of a perfect stranger. Such procedures are extremely rare.
“If you look at actually giving one of your vital organs to somebody, and then somebody that you don't know, I think that does require a special type of person,” said Dr. Koushik Shaw, a urology surgeon who performs transplants. “You know, I'm amazed by those people.
"I put them on a pedestal much higher than myself, in terms of the ability to help other people that they don't know.”
And yet, ethical considerations require that donors and recipients remain unknown to each other. So, no matter how impressed the staff may be, they are sworn to secrecy.
“Most people who do this,” said James Pittman, a registered nurse who serves as the director of the transplant center, “they're not looking for fame or glory or any sort of recognition, whatsoever. And so we as a transplant program do everything within our power to ensure that both parties, both the recipient and the donor, are unaware of each other.”
Occasionally, that veil of secrecy does get lifted, but only in extraordinary circumstances when both donor and recipient simultaneously step forward with a desire to know each other.
Part of the process of protecting privacy in the other transplant cases, involves keeping the number and timing of anonymous donations out of the public eye. The fear is that a recipient might see news reports about a donor who offered his or her kidney around the time the patient received their transplant. The donor would be “outed” to the recipient at that point, even though he or she might not want to be.
So it is doubly rare that a donor would speak publicly about their decision and Aleece Estrada agreed to do so only on the condition that the date of her donation not be revealed.
“My dad had kidney failure,” said Estrada, “and I would have loved to have donated to him, but me being an only child and his daughter, he declined that. He didn't want to take that from his, you know, child.”
So kidney failure wound up killing Frank Estrada and as she worked through her grief, his daughter never lost touch with that impulse to donate.
“It had always been on my heart,” she said. “So it always was there. But when bringing it up to, you know, family, they would always go, 'Agggghhh, what if, what if?'
“And finally I got to the point, where I was strong enough to say, 'What if, what if I get hit by a car tomorrow?'
“'(What if) I had this wonderful opportunity and I didn't take advantage of it?’”
So Estrada decided to go through the rigorous physical and mental screening process to qualify for the surgery and along the way, learned that the procedure is very safe.
“We've actually been able to find out,” said Dr. Shaw, “that people who donate a kidney, compared to an age/match control, such as another person who's a 45 year-old who doesn't donate, the patient who donates is expected to live as long or if not, longer than the age-match control.”
Indeed, just six months following her donation, Estrada competed in the first of a string of half-marathon races.
“Most of our patients,” said Shaw, “go home in 48 hours. The blood loss is almost equivalent to getting two or three vials of blood drawn for a routine blood test. The pain is minimal and the recovery is pretty fast to go back to work.”
Of course, many kidney transplants start with organ donors who have died. Either they or their family members have okayed the process and a delicate bit of timing creates the life-saving transfer.
But often, patients get their new kidney from a friend or a member of their own family who provide a good medical match. Either way, the demand far outweighs the supply by what director Pittman calls, “multiple factors.”
“In Texas, there are over 9000 people waiting on the list for a kidney transplant,” Pittman said. “Every year, there's an additional 3000 people that are added. And we're only transplanting about 1300 people every year for kidney transplants.”
So people like Estrada are deeply appreciated. Still, Pittman cautions that such decisions must come freely.
“It's not anything that I would promote or encourage people to do,” Pittman said, ”because it's really their own choice and there can't be any coercion whatsoever.
“And so I wouldn't want to slant anybody's perspective to win favor of doing something that's so extraordinary.
“But at the end of the day, the people who do this are obviously extraordinary people.”
So Pittman and others at the transplant center walk a thin line between improperly encouraging “altruistic” or “non-directed” donations and acknowledging the importance of them.
“It's a story about humanity,” Pittman said, “and it's a story about compassion and, a story about somebody who's just wanting to help another person.
“To call it anything other than that and to go out and try to encourage other people to do it, I don't think is right.
“But if somebody comes to the realization that this something that they want to do, then yes, I mean, this is happening across the United States.”
As for Estrada, she can imagine what her father might say now.
“I think he would be a little upset at first,” she admitted, “but he would be proud, very much proud, yeah, without a doubt.”
And looking ahead to her next half-marathon, Estrada smiles.
“I feel good,” she said. “I get to make up a story for somebody out there, that they're getting to enjoy Christmas or their birthdays, or if they have kids, of if they have a husband, they get to enjoy that time now. So, yeah, it's a good thing.”
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