Transplant Registry

This Sunday, the Newark Star-Ledger will launch “Chain of Life,” its three-part series tracing the experiences of six patients who received new kidneys from strangers this past March—all in a span of thirty-six hours. The series documents a new medical experiment known as a “kidney chain”—“a recent phenomenon,” the Star-Ledger’s Amy Ellis Nutt notes, “designed to overcome a long-standing problem in renal transplantation: donors who do not match the blood or tissue type of a loved one.”

While the numbers when it comes to kidney donation aren’t good—“the wait for a cadaver kidney is three to seven years,” Ellis Nutt notes, “and the organs last, on average, only half as long as those from living donors—“the National Kidney Registry in Babylon, N.Y. is helping to change the transplant math.”

The registry keeps two lists: the names of altruistic donors, and incompatible pairs — donors who are unable to give a kidney to a loved one.

The 12 New Jersey and New York residents who either donated or received a kidney in March were part of the National Kidney Registry’s first six-way chain. Six perfectly healthy people donating kidneys to six people they never met before, so that a relative or friend could receive a transplant in return.

Without such chains, the numbers are daunting — about 80,000 people currently languish on the deceased-donor waiting list. Last year, fewer than 17,000 of them received new kidneys.

From a narrative perspective, one of the more compelling aspects of the story is the strangers-connected element it entails. “The donors in the historic chain that unfolded in New Jersey and New York in March include a business executive, a truck driver and a sanitation worker,” the series’s intro notes. “The recipients, a nursing home aide, a young mother and a liquor store clerk. All six recipients had chronic and irreversible kidney disease and all of them had spent years on dialysis, a machine that vacuums their blood clean when the kidneys no longer can.” We’re looking forward to reading more.

[h/t Joe Strupp]

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.