It all started with a good Samaritan and a pay-it-forward attitude: the concept of a kidney donation chain was born. In what is being heralded as proof of this donation technique's success, the world's longest kidney donation chain recently ended but not before it saved 30 lives.
In August, Rick Ruzzamenti, 44, made the unprecedented decision to donate his kidney to a stranger -- an organ that many wait for five to 10 years before finding a match. The Daily Mail reports that Ruzzamenti's kidney went to a 66-year-old man from New Jersey whose niece had wanted to donate, but she was not a blood match. So what did she do? Turned around and donated her kidney to a stranger who would be a match. And so the process went from one person to another with 60 total donors and recipients -- that's 30 lives saved.
The last donation came from a 59-year-old woman to recipient Donald Terry, 47, who did not have a relative to keep the chain going on his behalf. According to a statement, this chain, along with several others, started at Loyola University Medical Center. Of the 13 chains that began at Loyola, seven were started by employees of this medical institution -- five donated to strangers, two to acquaintances. It is reported that Loyola is the only place in the world that has such a high density of employees that have donated kidneys to non-relatives.
Watch this local ABC affiliate report about the longest transplant chain:
Here are a few personal stories (via the statement) of those involved with the longest-transplant chain:
Paulette's Story: 12th Link in World's Longest Kidney Transplant Chain
Paulette Behan of West Chicago, Ill., and her younger sister, Sunni Stupka of Baldwyn, Miss., are very close.
They text every day and talk at least once a week. So when Sunni learned that Paulette needed a kidney transplant, she was eager to donate one of hers.
But Sunni's kidney didn't match Paulette's immune system. If Sunni donated to Paulette, her kidney would be rejected.
"It broke my heart," Sunni said. "I felt like a failure, like I had let her down."
Then the sisters learned about an innovative kidney transplant chain available at Loyola University Medical Center. Transplant surgeon Dr. John Milner explained that Paulette could receive a kidney from a donor in Pittsburgh who matched her. In return, Sunni would promise to donate a kidney to a matching patient in California. Paulette became the 12th link in what would become the world's longest kidney transplant chain.
The kidney from the Pittsburgh donor was flown to Loyola from Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh. Four days after Milner transplanted the kidney into Paulette, Loyola's Chair of Surgery, Dr. Paul Kuo, removed a kidney from Sunni. Sunni's donated kidney then was flown to a waiting patient at Loma Linda University Medical Center.
Don's Story: Final Link in Record-breaking Kidney Transplant Chain
Don Terry of Joliet, Ill., is the 30th and last recipient in the world's longest kidney-transplant chain.
Terry, 46, has Type 2 diabetes. His kidneys began to fail two years ago, and he went on dialysis in January 2011. He was put on a transplant waiting list and told it could take as long as 5 to 10 years.
Terry has a full-time job with the U.S. Social Security Administration. Being on dialysis, he said, was like having a second, part-time job.
A diabetes patient on dialysis typically does not have a long life expectancy. Terry worried that he might not live to see his 50th birthday. "What bothered me the most was the possibility of leaving family members like my mom and dad by themselves, and having them see their son pass away from an excruciating disease," he said.
Then Terry read about Loyola University Medical Center's participation in kidney transplant chains, which are designed to eliminate waiting times for kidneys. Terry made an appointment with Dr. John Milner, one of the nation's leading transplant-chain surgeons.
A kidney became available from a donor in California who matched Terry. The surgery was successful, and Terry recently returned to work.
"I think I have more energy now than I had when I was in my 20s," he said." I have made it my life's mission to make people aware of kidney chains."
Donation chains such as these are what Loyola transplant surgeon John Milner calls "the best way for patients with incompatible donors to be transplanted quickly and with the best results."
In its Sunday feature on the donation chain, the New York Times states there are currently 90,000 people waiting for kidneys; only 17,000 of whom will get a one each year. The Times also reports that donor kidneys account for a third of kidneys given to patients in need -- these kidneys often last longer than those taken from deceased individuals.
The Times reports that this longest donor chain spanned 11 states and involved 17 hospitals over a four month period.