WILKES-BARRE — Kevin Vanwhy needed a new kidney and time was running out.
The Wilkes-Barre man’s wife was willing to donate one, but her blood type wasn’t a match.
A young woman nearing death in Atlanta also had a willing donor. But the donor wasn’t compatible either. Two people in Toledo, Ohio, faced the same scenario.
On Oct. 2, the groups participated in a three-way kidney swap organized by the United Network for Organ Sharing, which helps link organ donors and recipients around the country.
Mr. Vanwhy, who has battled diabetes for years, got a kidney from a 24-year-old woman in Toledo. His wife’s kidney went to the critically ill woman in Atlanta. The Atlanta donor’s kidney ended up with a patient in Toledo.
Three selfless donors. Three lives saved. Three groups of people that never met before — and still haven’t.
After it was all over, doctors joked with Mr. Vanwhy, 50, that he received the “Mercedes” of organ donations: a kidney of a healthy woman half his age.
“What do you say to someone like that?” said Mr. Vanwhy, a double-leg-amputee who was in renal failure prior to the transplant. “She gave me my life back.”
Because of privacy concerns, the donors and recipients don’t know each other yet, but that is something usually arranged months after such surgeries. The relationships of the donors and recipients in Atlanta and Toledo weren’t revealed to the Vanwhys, but they look forward to all six people meeting in the future.
“I’m a big hugger — be prepared,” Mr. Vanwhy said during a recent afternoon in his home. “She’s getting a big hug.”
Mr. Vanwhy got a youthful person’s kidney due to the desperation of the woman who needed one in Atlanta.
Usually, the donor matching service tries to link people around the same age. But the woman in Atlanta urgently needed a transplant and was willing to take a kidney from Mr. Vanwhy’s 45-year-old wife, Karen.
“She really would have died,” Mr. Vanwhy said.
Normally, people wait on the national transplant list for years, hoping to find a match from someone who died and is an organ donor. Many people die without ever finding a match.
“There’s just too many people requiring a kidney transplant. There just are not enough donors,” said Chintalapati Varma, M.D., the director of transplantation surgery for Geisinger Health System who performed the procedures on the Vanwhys.
Statistics show about 6,000 transplants are made possible across the country each year by living donors. Kidneys are the most common because all medical evidence suggests people can function well with only one kidney, Dr. Varma said.
When a family member or close friend isn’t compatible to donate, turning to the United Network for Organ Sharing is a great option to find a match, he said.
“There is power in numbers,” Dr. Varma said. “We have databases and use advanced software to match donors with recipients.”
Last month’s three-way exchange began in the early morning hours of Oct. 2 — with doctors in the three states simultaneously starting the surgeries to take the kidney donations.
“The operations, they have to start immediately because if someone backs out at the last minute, the chain is disrupted,” Dr. Varma said.
If the Toledo donor backed out at the last minute, Mr. Vanwhy’s wife, Karen, told Dr. Varma to go ahead with her surgery because the life of the woman in Atlanta hung in the balance.
“I believe very strongly in organ donation,” Mrs. Vanwhy explained.
After the kidneys were taken from the donors, they were placed in special organ transplant boxes to prepare for immediate shipping. Then, as always, logistics came into play. The organs were transported to local airports and were checked as luggage on commercial flights.
“Everything goes by a time line. It has to go into the cargo. Then it comes out on the luggage conveyors. Someone has to be there,” Dr. Varma explained. “You’re involving three different flights, three different airlines. There’s always a backup airline. And you have to have a backup plan to the backup plan.”
Upon arrival of the kidneys, the transplant surgeries took place in each of the three states. So far, all have been successful.
Prior to the transplant, Mr. Vanwhy had been battling extreme fatigue, insomnia and a lack of appetite as his health rapidly declined. After the surgery, he said he felt better immediately and even jokingly asked Dr. Varma if he could go home to mow the lawn that day. He settled for a brief, four-day hospital stay.
Before the operation, Mr. Vanwhy was no longer able to work. He had managed a cardiac testing laboratory for an Easton hospital for more than 20 years. He recently returned to the workforce, landing a job at the front desk of a local hotel. He also continues to run a local amputee support group.
“People don’t want to hire someone with all kinds of health problems. No legs. The doctors appointments are nonstop,” Mr. Vanwhy said.
Contact the writer:
bkalinowski@citizensvoice.com, @cvbobkal on Twitter