Here’s a simple way to explain kidney transplant chains:
In a kidney chains, a person who want to give a kidney to a specific kidney patient, but who don’t match that patient, gives their kidney to someone else whom they match but don’t know and who also has an unmatching donor so that the person they originally intended to give their kidney to get a kidney from someone else who matches them. The recipient’s unmatching donor then gives a kidney to someone else who they match but don’t know, etc.
Okay, so it’s not that simple to explain. But the bottom line is that willing people give up kidneys so that patients with kidney failure can get off the kidney transplant waiting list.
A story by Kevin Sack in Sunday’s New York Times explains the process much better than I can, and details the juggling act that went into a record kidney chain facilitated by the National Kidney Registry (NKR).
NKR is a private organization that works with hospitals to arrange living donor transplants. Barnes-Jewish Hospital has participated in several NKR chains (though not the one in the Times), as well as chains and paired exchanges arranged by UNOS, the agency that oversees transplant in the United States.
Five years ago, kidney chains and paired exchanges were rare. But they’ve taken off like a rocket. In 2010, paired exchanges and kidney chains resulted in 429 transplants in the U.S.
Computer models, the Times says, show that 2,000 to 4,000 more transplants a year could take place if more people knew about paired exchange programs and participated in them. With more than 90,000 Americans on the waiting list for kidneys, and only 17,000 transplant occurring each year, 4,000 more would be a significant and welcome gain.
When you consider that a transplant could mean a patient can get off of dialysis, go back to work, raise their family or just generally live a productive, normal life, another way to explain kidney chains becomes clear: They are a great way to pay it forward.