'Out of the Goodness of Their Hearts'
Typically an "altruistic donor," a living person who donates his or her kidney to a stranger rather than a relative or friend, starts the chain.
"A chain often starts when someone off the street says, 'I want to donate my kidney to somebody,'" said Dr. Ryutaro Hirose, a UCSF transplant surgeon. "They don't have a friend or relative who needs a transplant. They're just doing it out of the goodness of their heart."
Reid Moran-Haywood, the altruistic donor who made UCSF and CPMC's nine-transplant chain possible, said he became interested in kidney donation after hearing of an acquaintance's struggle to find a match. Because of his excellent health and universal-donor blood type, the 56-year-old avid runner said he found the decision easy.
"I'm the lucky one: I've had a healthy life," Moran-Haywood said. "I'm excited to help out. It's very little sacrifice as far as I'm concerned."
While the physical and mental screening process for altruistic donors remains extensive, doctors believe the long-term risks of living with just one kidney are low for healthy people.
Two San Francisco Hospitals Working Together
Transplant teams at UCSF and CPMC first discussed a possible collaboration months before the transplant chain took place, and that dream became a reality after both hospitals began using the same software program to match donor and recipient pairs.
The software, called MatchGrid, enabled the two centers to combine patient data without compromising privacy and analyze possible matches far more quickly than was previously possible.
"We have two separate groups of patients in two hospitals, and we anonymously join them together and see if there are matches within the two programs," said Dr. Steven Katznelson, medical director of CPMC's kidney transplant program. "The more people in the pool, the more likely it is that we'll find a match for any one of our patients.
"We both agree that we stand to serve our patients better by collaborating rather than competing," he added.
Both centers expect the cooperation to continue and predict it will produce more large-scale kidney exchanges in the Bay Area.
A Patient's Life Changed
Kidney recipient Helen Hillman is certainly grateful for the teamwork that made her transplant possible. About 15 years ago, the 69-year-old Walnut Creek resident learned that her kidneys were functioning at 50 percent of normal.
By 2013 Hillman spent every night hooked up to a dialysis machine. She had to give up beloved activities like traveling, Zumba classes and Pilates. Hillman also found it increasingly difficult to lift her 3-year-old granddaughter.
Then Hillman's former sister-in-law and dear friend, Cynthia Ginsburg, volunteered to donate a kidney. The two women weren't a match but joined UCSF's wait list together.
Hillman received her new kidney about a year later.
"It's going to give me a chance for a new life," Hillman said before her surgery. "I haven't done anything for two years – I haven't traveled because the machine weighs about 60 pounds. I want to go to Eastern Europe, to Budapest, to Russia.
"There are so many places I want to go."