In Baltimore, Five Kidney Donors Meet Five Recipients

Earlier this week at John's Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, five kidney transplant patients came face to face with their organ donors for the first time. The five donors and five recipients were recovering, after taking part in what doctors called the first-ever quintuple kidney transplant. NPR's Luke Burbank reports.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick. Today, Thanksgiving, family gatherings all across the country. But few will be as emotional charged as a reunion, earlier this week, at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

Five kidney transplant patients actually met their organ donors for the first time. The five donors and five recipients were all recovering after taking part in the first-ever quintuple kidney transplant.

NPR's Luke Burbank has more.

LUKE BURBANK: Sheila Thornton(ph) spent the last four years hooked up to a machine, thanks to a condition you've probably never even heard of by its technical name.

Ms. SHEILA THORNTON (Kidney recipient, Johns Hopkins Hospital): Focal segmental glomerulosclerosis.

BURBANK: In other words, late stage kidney failure. During those four years, Thornton was on the list for a transplant, but a suitable match never appeared. Which is where the machines came in. First, she was going to a Maryland hospital - three days a week, five hours a day - where she was hooked up for dialysis. Eventually though, even that stop working.

Ms. THORNTON: With different problems with infections and the grafts that they put in, I've switched to what they call peritoneal dialysis. And you, I did it at home, nine hours every night, but it still - it's not the same as having a kidney.

BURBANK: As Gerry Loevner of Sarasota, Florida, knows all too well. After a series of open-heart surgeries, he suffered kidney failure, too. His wife, Sandy, says it affects every aspect of your life.

Ms. SANDY LOEVNER (Wife of Gerry Loevner): It's amazing what you can't have, including water. Your fluids have to be limited. We try to keep Gerry to three and a half cups of liquid a day. Now, that includes anything that can turn to liquid like Jell-O.

BURBANK: Gerry Loevner was also on the transplant list and Sandy, his wife, was happy to give him her kidney but they were not an ideal match. A fairly common situation, says Dr. Robert Montgomery, who directs the Johns Hopkins Transplant Center.

Dr. ROBERT MONTGOMERY (Director, Johns Hopkins Transplant Center): We have four different couples that came to us, and each had a willing donor, but there was an incompatibility between the donor and the recipient.

BURBANK: Things were not looking great for these people, or for Sheila Thornton, who by now was just hoping to get a kidney from a cadaver - also not the ideal situation.

Dr. MONTGOMERY: And that's were Honey Rothstein came in.

BURBANK: That's right. Honey Rothstein, a 48-year-old IRS employee from West Virginia, who decided, two Thanksgivings ago, that she wanted to donate a kidney to someone who needed it in honor of her late daughter.

Ms. HONEY ROTHSTEIN (Kidney donor): Sometimes, you just have to deal with what feels good in your heart. I mean you do what's right in your heart and you think, you know, maybe I can do something good for somebody.

BURBANK: Rothstein probably had no idea though just how much good she was about to do. You see, Honey Rothstein's kidney fit like the missing piece to a puzzle. It matched a woman named Kristine Jantzi of Maine. That meant Jantzi's adoptive mother, Florence, could give her kidney to a better match, a guy named George Brooks. In turn, George Brooks' wife, Sharon, was able to donate her kidney to a more ideal candidate, a fellow named Gary Persell, whose wife, Leslie, then gave her kidney to Gerry Loevner, the guy from Sarasota, which meant his wife, Sandy, could now give her kidney to - you guessed it, Sheila Thornton.

So, Ms. Thornton, so far how is Sandy Loevner's kidney doing? How's it feeling?

Ms. THORNTON: Oh, wow. It is wonderful. It is wonderful.

BURBANK: Does that make you kind of proud, Sandy, that you are, you know, you were taking good care of that kidney for 63 years, and now, someone else's getting to use it?

Ms. SANDY LOEVNER (Kidney donor): It does. I got to tell you that lady is used to a lot of water, that's all I can tell you. We live in Florida where it's hot and that kidney has been well exercised.

BURBANK: All 10 surgeries were performed on the same afternoon, last week, by Dr. Montgomery and his Johns Hopkins team. It took 12 surgeons, six operating rooms, and a staff of over 100, but in the end, they'd managed a quintuple kidney transplant, which by all accounts is some kind of new record. Records aside, Dr. Montgomery says there is a legitimate reason all the surgeries needed to happen at once.

Dr. MONTGOMERY: To remove the variable of, you know, something happening that would hold up some of the operation, and, you know, someone might donate a kidney and their loved one not get one.

BURBANK: Dr. Montgomery says it was only after he'd finished all the surgeries, as he looked at a complicated diagram of who got which kidney that it hit him.

Dr. MONTGOMERY: I mean I'll never forget that that moment when I actually had the realization of what we had accomplished. It was - it was very cool.

BURBANK: So cool, in fact, that Dr. Montgomery says that one moment made all those years of med school, all those sleep-deprived hours as a resident, worth it. And for the patients, all of whom are recovering well, the record-breaking procedure means freedom from dialysis machines, freedom to drink more than 3.5 cups of liquid a day, and a lifelong bond with someone - who until last week -was a complete stranger.

Luke Burbank, NPR News.

Ms. LOEVNER: Thank you. I'll be in touch. Sheila, thank you. Thank you for making Thanksgiving special.

Ms. THORNTON: Thank you.

Ms. LOEVNER: Bye, honey.

Ms. THORNTON: Okay, bye-bye.

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