A diabetic patient battling end-stage renal disease, she spent three days each week undergoing dialysis. It was a taxing process that left her exhausted.
“We just waited,” Phyllis Anderson said on Sunday in her east Cobb home.
But just when it seemed a donor would never emerge from the national transplant list, Idaho resident Kai Fong changed everything.
Phyllis Anderson and Fong were paired for a transplant through the Alliance for Paired Donation. The two had never met but would soon have a relationship unlike any other.
Fong underwent medical testing in preparation to give his kidney to a coworker, but when it turned out he wasn’t a match for his friend, Fong decided to follow through with the organ donation, becoming an altruistic living donor.
That inspired Phyllis Anderson’s husband, Steve, to donate his kidney to a stranger.
The Alliance for Paired Donation, based in Ohio, brings together organ recipients with donors.
Patients are able to join the alliance if they have a friend or family member who is willing to donate a kidney to someone else, almost always a stranger. Donors give a kidney to a stranger in exchange for a loved one receiving a transplant from someone who is a medical match.
Organ donations spur domino effect
Fong had a chance to back out of the invasive surgery when he learned his friend was not a match for his kidney, but said he “already committed to giving it away.”
“Science tells us that we can live with one kidney so why not,” Fong said.
He called it a simple decision.
“Putting it in perspective with what the kidney patients have to go through with dialysis. … I mean, that’s tough,” Fong said. “My decision was easy compared to all of that.”
In 2012, Fong traveled to Piedmont Atlanta Hospital to give away his kidney to a woman he had never met. He didn’t know her name, age or background. He had only been told he would be donating to a “very nice couple.”
“That’s all I needed to hear,” Fong said.
Hesitant at first, Fong reluctantly agreed to see the recipient of his kidney after the surgery took place.
“Just to see her in person was just like, ‘Wow. This was definitely very, very worth it,” Fong said.
It seemed like a perfect fit, Fong said. Phyllis Anderson is an elementary teacher retired from Marietta City Schools. Fong’s wife is also a teacher.
Just six months later, Steve Anderson would pay it forward donating his kidney to a man in Texas. He still hasn’t met the recipient of his organ but calls occasionally to the Texas hospital where the surgery took place to follow up on the man’s condition.
A chain reaction followed Fong and Steve Anderson’s donations involving nearly a dozen other individuals. It all came full circle in October 2013 when Symone Foster, who has lupus, received a kidney from a stranger in Michigan at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital.
Both Fong and Steve Anderson say the surgery had little impact on their daily lives, but it’s an experience they wouldn’t trade.
“I don’t think about it really much,” Fong said. “It hasn’t changed my life. It hasn’t made it any worse. I think it’s made it better in the sense … just mentally. When you see the incision or you see the little scar on your tummy it just reminds you that, yeah I did this.”
Living donations more successful
About 99,000 people in the United States are waiting for kidney transplants but only about 14,000 take place each year.
“Living donors and paired kidney exchanges address this challenge by making it possible for us to create a larger pool of potential, good quality living donors,” said Dr. Miguel Tan of Piedmont Atlanta Hospital. “Living kidney donation has, and will continue to, improve outcomes and access to transplantation by decreasing wait times, improving long-term outcomes and lowering the number of people on the deceased donor waiting list.”
Steve Anderson said the Alliance for Paired Donations is a service that more people, including health care professionals, need to tap into.
“This could grow exponentially,” Steve Anderson said.
Phyllis Anderson has traded in her three days each week undergoing dialysis for more independence.
She spent her 40th wedding anniversary in November with her husband in Los Cabos, Mexico. Traveling internationally was out of the question when she was restricted to dialysis.
Healthier and more energetic, Phyllis Anderson says she now has more control of her life.
“We have a lot more freedom,” she said.