How far would you go to save the life of someone you loved? For Theodora Papaioannou-Helmis, who genetically was unable to donate her kidney to her husband, Michalis, the journey included:
• Changing the law in Greece, their home country, to permit kidney donations across international borders;
• Locating a compatible donor somewhere in the world for Michalis; and
• Donating her own kidney to develop a chain of altruistic kidney donors that would save the lives of people all over the world.
Her efforts not only saved her husband’s life, but also resulted in the first international kidney donation chain that already has saved the lives of people across the United States in Oklahoma, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, California, Georgia and Colorado.
Altruistic kidney donation chains are the brainchild of University of Toledo Medical Center transplant surgeon Dr. Michael Rees, CEO of the Alliance for Paired Donation Inc., Maumee. The latest phase of the effort, international altruistic donation, was announced June 1 in a joint news conference at the Embassy of Greece in Washington, D.C.
To begin a chain, an altruistic donor — Elizabeth Gay from Oklahoma in the case of Dora and Michalis — agreed to donate a kidney to a patient searching for a genetic match. In turn, a relative or friend of that patient agrees to donate his or her kidney forward to another patient in search of a genetic match and the chain continues.
For Rees, whose donor chain idea and patients have been highlighted on national news networks (NBC, ABC, CBS), in U.S. newspapers and publications as varied as People Magazine and the New England Journal of Medicine, crossing national borders is a huge leap forward and earned attention from CNN and FOX News, among other media outlets.
“The broader the pool of potential donors we can pull from, the greater the probability we can find a match in time to save someone’s life,” said Rees, UT professor and vice chair of urology. “That Greece has had the foresight to make this change is wonderful for Greeks but also for patients in the U.S. and all over the world who may survive thanks to the generosity of spirit from someone earlier in the donation chain.”
Following the transplant of Gay’s kidney into Michalis and Dora’s procedure at UTMC, the chain then continued to Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.; Jewish Hospital Transplant Center in Louisville, Ky.; and Scripps Green Hospital in La Jolla, Calif. Three more transplants in the chain will take place shortly at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta and the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver.