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Search for kidney donor underscores challenges for transplant recipients
Doctors advise patients to search for living donor if they can
MARION — As the Rev. Jerry Doellinger begins his search for a kidney donor, he joins thousands of other Americans searching for a living organ donor.
Doellinger, 75, is an assistant pastor at St. Paul’s Luthern Church in Marion, and has served as a pastor in Eastern Iowa churches for the past 50 years. This year, after a progressing kidney disease showed the need for an organ transplant, he put out a request to the community to see if anyone would be willing to donate.
The number of Americans who need an organ transplant continues to grow, but the number of organs available to transplant is not keeping up, said Dr. Alan Reed, transplant surgeon at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.
As a result, patients are facing years’ long waits for organs. The average patient, depending on where they live, waits between three and five years for a donated kidney from a deceased donor, Reed said.
Because of that, providers like Reed are “more aggressively” encouraging their patients to find a living kidney donor.
“We recommend to all of our patients that they look for live donors so, number one, they don't have to wait so long,” Reed said. “But more importantly, these organs are usually a much better quality. In general, they work better and they will last longer than any deceased donor we can give them.”
The search begins
Doellinger’s kidney function has been declining for the past decade or so, and starting earlier this year, he began dialysis treatment. Dialysis, however, is only a temporary solution. His doctors decided Doellinger needed a kidney transplant.
Unfortunately, he did not qualify to be added to the national waiting list for a deceased kidney donation because of his age. By the time one would become available to him, Doellinger would be in his 80s, he said.
But doctors at the UIHC transplant said if he could find a living donor willing to provide a kidney, Doellinger could receive his transplant much sooner.
So, the search began as Doellinger’s family, friends and parishioners began spreading the word, hoping to find someone willing to volunteer. Ten people did step up — but none were able to donate either because they weren’t a match to Doellinger or because they didn’t qualify to donate.
“We’re still trying to get the word out,” he said.
UIHC ‘more aggressive’ in pursuing donations
In 2021, 24,669 kidneys were transplanted nationwide, according to the nonprofit United Network for Organ Sharing. Of those, 5,970 were from living donors giving directly to loved ones or strangers.
As of this week, there are more than 89,876 individuals waiting for a kidney transplant nationwide. This population makes up the vast majority of the total 105,923 individuals in the nation in need of an organ transplant.
In addition to an increasing need, Iowa has seen a decline in available organ donations after the governing body overseeing transplants changed its allocation policy for kidney donations.
Effective March 2021, officials broadened the distance between donor hospitals and qualified transplant candidates to 250 nautical miles — meaning more organs from deceased donors are making their way out of the state, instead of being transplanted into Iowans.
“For organs that were procured in our area, we used to keep about 80 percent of those organs and ship out about 20 percent,” Reed said. “Now we’re shipping out about 80 percent and keeping about 20 percent.”
These organs are making their way to urban areas, such as Chicago or Minneapolis, which have longer waitlists than Iowa City.
As a result, in order to ensure their patients receive a kidney in a timely manner, providers have “had to become more aggressive in the types of livers we take,” Reed said.
That includes organs from donors who may carry a slightly greater risk, such as those donors who died following cardiac death. Those organs carry more risk their traditional donors, who passed as a result of brain death, Reed said.
As they await for potential volunteers, Doellinger and his wife Jan Doellinger. say they are optimistic. But, still they wonder, who would give their kidney to someone they don’t know?
“My wife says every day is a gift. We try to enjoy that blessing of a new day to the fullest,” he said.
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