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Memorial Medical Center Completes First Kidney Transplant Chain in 46-Year History of Its Transplant Program

Memorial Medical Center completed the first kidney transplant chain in the 46-year history of the nonprofit hospital's transplant program.

Six of the eight patients involved in the living donor transplant chain met for the first time as a group yesterday morning (June 20) in a private meeting in the Memorial Center for Learning and Innovation (MCLI) on Memorial's campus. Later that morning, they were introduced at a news conference in the M.G. Nelson Family Auditorium in the MCLI with many of their caregivers from the hospital in attendance.

"This is a profound moment in the history of our kidney transplant program," said Dr. Marc Garfinkel, surgical director of the Alan G. Birtch, MD, Center for Transplant Services at Memorial Medical Center. "All the patients in this transplant chain are remarkable individuals who were willing to make sacrifices and participate in something that was so much larger than themselves."

Here is how the transplant chain works: If a patient needs a kidney and has a friend or family member willing to donate but turns out to be incompatible, that donor agrees to donate a kidney to someone else on the waiting list with whom they match.

The eight-person chain at Memorial includes three pairs of recipients and donors, either family members or friends who were incompatible. The chain began with a non-directed donor, often referred to as an altruistic donor, who had agreed to donate a kidney to a stranger who needed one. That donor's kidney was given to the recipient of the first of the three pairs, whose recipient agreed to give their kidney to the recipient from the second pair.

The second pair's donor then gave their kidney to the recipient from the third pair, whose donor gave their kidney to a fourth recipient who was on the waiting list but did not have a donor.

"It's a rare occurrence when something like this happens," said Dr. Bradford West, medical director of Memorial's transplant program and a nephrologist with Springfield Clinic, who oversaw the medical management of all eight patients before and after their surgeries.

The transplants took place over seven weeks. The first transplant in the chain took place on Sept. 19, 2017; the final transplant was completed on Nov. 3, 2017. Dr. Bradley Schwartz, a surgeon with SIU Medicine, performed the removal of some of the kidneys from the donors.

The patients in the transplant chain, in order, are donor Misty Shaw of Springfield, recipient Deborah Kunath of Jacksonville, donor Robert Kunath of Jacksonville, recipient Ian Robertson of Springfield, a donor who has chosen to remain anonymous, recipient Rebecca Reed of Edinburg, donor Vicky Beatty of Springfield and recipient Donald Pierce of Palmyra, Missouri.

The possibility of a chain began in late April 2017 when Shaw, the non-directed donor, who was the first in the chain, contacted Memorial's transplant program about her interest in donating one of her kidneys to someone in need.

"She was the donor who caused all the other pieces to fall into the right place," West said.

An estimated 20-plus staff members including a nurse coordinator, dietitian, social worker, financial coordinator and pharmacist assisted the patients. Staff worked to determine if a chain could be arranged, worked on necessary lab tests and maintained anonymity between patients and their families on the days of the surgeries. In order to ensure confidentiality early in the process, a donor and recipient would stay on different floors of the hospital following their surgeries.

Since Memorial's transplant program was founded in 1972, about 960 transplants, almost all of them kidneys, have been completed. The transplant program is a cooperative partnership between Memorial, SIU Medicine and Springfield Clinic.

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