Two area men can now say they were part of one of the largest organ donation swaps in history.
Honored Thursday at the Emory Clinic in Atlanta, Troy Milford and Robert Poole were part of what is being called “Chain 221,” the world’s second-largest kidney swap, and the largest kidney swap to be concluded in less than 40 days.
Milford and Poole, both patients at the Emory Transplant Center, were two of the 56 participants.
For northeast Forsyth County resident Milford, diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease in 1997, the swap was 16 years in the making.
“I went on the (kidney donor) list in early 2010,” he said, which was just after he was put on hemodialysis in 2009. The worst part of dialysis for Milford was the amount of time it took, though eventually he was able to conduct the procedure at home.
“When I was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease, they told me then that there was a good chance my kidneys would eventually fail,” he said.
With a Type O blood type, Milford was told that the average waiting time for a kidney would be four years.
He settled in for a long wait, even after initial tests showed his wife as a match. She was eventually ruled out as a donor for other reasons.
This was when Milford, who was a pastor at Chalcedonia Baptist Church, just north of Canton, crossed paths with friend and fellow church member Poole.
After prayer and weeks of Internet research, Poole made the decision to go in and be tested as a potential match for his pastor and friend.
“They also told me about the paired donor program they had, where they could actually swap with somebody else,” Poole said. “Troy at that time was not signed up for the paired donor program, so I called him and told him he needed to sign up for it. And I would sign up for it in hopes that we could find a swap.”
In a paired donation, a donor and recipient are matched with another incompatible donor and recipient pair, and the kidneys are then exchanged between the pairs.
So the two friends signed up. That was two years ago.
Since then, there were a couple of instances when both men were told to expect a transplant, but it would then fall through due to a variety of reasons. But in late April, the call came and both men made plans to be at the Emory Transplant Center on April 30.
“I got there at 6:30 that morning,” Poole said. “As soon as I got there, the nurse met and asked me if I was ready to go.”
Poole was taken back to surgery, and after a couple of hours found himself waking up in his recovery room.
“While my kidney was being processed and sent to Houston, Texas, at the same time the kidney Troy was getting was coming from New Jersey,” Poole said. Milford went on to have his surgery early that afternoon.
Nearly 4,000 Georgia residents are waiting for donor kidneys
In Georgia, 4.8 million people are registered organ donors, nearly half of the state’s 9.9 million population.
Around 83,500 of the potential donors come from Hall County, according to information from LifeLink of Georgia. Both numbers were current as of June 25. LifeLink is a nonprofit organization that helps facilitate organ donations and transplant procedures.
Numbers from Northeast Georgia Medical Center for 2012 said that there were nine organ donors, and 29 tissue donors in the county.
Numbers from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services show that there are just fewer than 4,000 people in the state on waiting lists for all organs. The majority, around 3,500, are for kidneys.
There are a few different ways to become an organ donor. When applying for a driver’s license, the application has an option for organ donation following death. (A person’s license notes whether or not they are a donor.) Georgians may also sign up online at donatelifegeorgia.org for being put on the list for donation upon death.
There are certain ways a living person can be a donor, mostly through transplant centers or national donor registries.
Physician Nicole Turgeon, associate professor of surgery at Emory University School of Medicine, said that there is a serious need for donors, with around 100,000 people nationally on a waiting list for a kidney alone.
“These are for both deceased donor organs, and for living donors,” she said. “The power of living donation is you don’t have to be on the deceased donor list.”
She said that most patients wait for years on lists prior to receiving donations.
‘We can live perfectly well with one kidney’
Both Poole and Milford encourage people to consider organ donation. For his part, Poole said that the only doubts he might have had about the procedure came the day after.
“The realization was pretty bad,” he laughed, saying that the day after his surgery was painful as he came fully off of anesthesia and pain medication. “But the recovery period is so small, and we can live perfectly well with only one kidney.”
He did have to return to the hospital a few times so the doctors could be certain his remaining kidney was functioning properly.
Milford has a few extra precautions to take as a kidney recipient. The biggest thing he had to be concerned about, he said, was the anti-rejection medicine he had to take driving his immune system down. For the first few weeks after surgery, he had to avoid large groups. Now, he wears a mask when he’s out and about on his farm.
He said that he never really felt in ill health while on dialysis, but feels better now after the transplant than he had prior.
Turgeon said that signing up to become a living donor is relatively easy, depending on the overall health of the potential donor. All one has to do is report to a transplant center.
The medical team at the center would then walk the person through the process of becoming a donor, making sure they are physically, financially and emotionally able to handle the donation process. A donor needs to be 18 years old and in good health.
While certain medical conditions, like diabetes and high blood pressure, may disqualify a candidate, there are also many medical conditions that don’t factor into the ability to become a donor.
“Our goal on this side is safety first,” Turgeon said.
Milford cautioned that it’s a decision not to be taken lightly.
“For anybody that feels like they want to give an organ, I’d say do it,” he said. “But, they need to pray about it and make sure that’s what they want to do, because there are a lot of ups and downs.”