Kidney recipient gives thanks for anonymous donor and the gift of a second chance

On July 23, Melissa Masse celebrated her 34th birthday in the operating room of Penn State Hershey, watching Dr. Riaz Shah hold up a kidney while the medical team sang “Happy Birthday.”

Earlier that morning, doctors had harvested a kidney from her husband, Chris, and sent it to a major metropolitan area where it would be given to someone as unknown to the Masses as the donor whose organ became a birthday present for Melissa.

Melissa and Chris Masse holding flowers between them where their scars forever bind them as recipient and donor.

Melissa and Chris Masse hold flowers between them to mark the scars that forever bind them as recipient and donor in a chain that gave Melissa and three others a second chance at life with a healthy kidney.

The surgeries were just two links in a complex transplant chain that allowed four people to receive healthy kidneys despite not having compatible live donors. Known as a “kidney swap,” Penn State Hershey offers the program as an alternative to dialysis and years of waiting for a deceased donor organ.

Melissa had been diagnosed with diabetes at age 11, but it wasn’t until stomach trouble and vomiting sent her to an emergency department in August 2012 and doctors noted her poor kidney function that she was sent to a specialist. By the end of the year, the South Williamsport woman was added to the list of people waiting for a healthy kidney.

Because the average person waits more than six years for a kidney, and because the mortality rate for those on dialysis is 50 percent after five years, Melissa’s husband offered to be a live donor. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a match. Nor was her boss. Or her best friend.

“I was devastated,” Chris said. He knew his wife was hoping for a live donor so there would be less chance her body would reject the new kidney. So he told transplant coordinator Vicky Reilly that he would donate his kidney to someone he had never met so that his wife could receive a healthy kidney from someone she had never met.

It meant Chris would have to live in a constant state of readiness, prepared to travel to Hershey within a day or two of getting a call — to give blood or undergo additional testing. He would also have to donate more of his blood so his kidney could safely travel to its recipient.

“I knew that the end result though was her getting a kidney, so I said, ‘sign me up,’” he recalled.

As part of the National Kidney Registry’s swap program, Penn State Hershey can enter patients with willing live donors into a database that helps them find matches nationwide. Sometimes it is a simple swap, but in other cases, a Good Samaritan kidney donation can set up a chain that results in several people getting the healthy organs they need.

Chris, Melissa, and Katie Masse pose for a family portrait in the Garden of Life at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

Chris, Melissa, and Katie Masse in the Garden of Life at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, August 2013.

That’s what happened for the Masses. Within days of entering the program, they got a match. Someone, somewhere, had decided – for reasons unknown to them – to donate his kidney to someone he had never met.

Chris traveled to Hershey for additional blood work, testing and paperwork that would set things in motion. In other parts of the nation, two other donors did the same. “Everyone in the chain has to agree and we have seven days to get it all done,” Reilly said. “If they all say yes, within 48 hours we schedule a logistics call.” Surgeons and transplant coordinators at the centers involved in the swap or chain hash out logistics of transport, tracking and timing. They schedule surgeries and shipping and detailed backup plans.

Although Penn State Hershey transplants about one-third of its waiting list each year, transplant program manager Kim Rallis says participation in the kidney swap program should improve those numbers: “We want to give our patients the best chance possible for getting a kidney,” she said. “There has been an increase in live donors stepping forward, but there are not enough donors to go around. What continues to increase is the need.”

Kidneys can fail for a number of reasons, but an aging population, increasing obesity rates and more people with conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure have increased the demand for healthy organs. Transplant surgeon Riaz Shah said thousands of people in the area need a healthy kidney. Because of Penn State Hershey’s proximity to old-order religious communities with close community ties, it also sees many children with congenital diseases.

“People who can and do undergo a transplant live longer and have better quality of life than those who go on dialysis,” Shah said. “Living donor kidneys work better than deceased donor ones because they spend less time out of the body and come from healthy people.”

As a participating transplant center for kidney swaps, Penn State Hershey is also able to evaluate Good Samaritan donors, entering them into the database to help others in need of match. “We might be looked at as small beans because we are local, but we’re working with some of the best centers in the country as part of this program,” Reilly said.

Rallis remembers a time when kidney swap was considered “crazy talk.” Those who needed a kidney went on dialysis and the waiting list if they didn’t have a compatible live donor. And they had the added stress of trying to find a friend or family member to come forward as a potential live donor.

“Now, all that pressure isn’t on the potential recipient,” Shah said. “Although I think a lot of times, people underestimate how much other people want to help them.”

An infographic demonstrating how the kidney swap program works.

Learn more about how one Good Samaritan donor can start a chain that gives the gift of life to more than one person at a time.

At 7 a.m. on July 23, Chris went into surgery to have his kidney removed. As Melissa waited for her 1 p.m. procedure, she got GPS tracking updates on her kidney’s journey to Hershey. Less than five days later, both went home to their 6-year-old daughter. “I thought I felt good before, but now that I feel amazing, I realize how tired I was before,” Melissa said. Chris was soon cleared to go back to his sports writing job, and Melissa returned to work as assistant director of financial services at Lycoming College with the fall semester.

Despite confidentiality rules that prevent Melissa from communicating with her donor — or Chris from contacting his recipient for six months after the surgeries — Melissa’s kidney came with a card. The donor’s name is blacked out, but he wrote: “I hope your life is amazing from this point on… I hope for nothing but the best for you and I will continue praying for you, my new friend.”

Although she can’t contact him yet to learn what prompted the Good Samaritan donor to give up a kidney, Melissa thinks about her donor and the fact that she has part of someone else inside her that was selflessly given up. “What a blessing,” she said. “This is an amazing program. If more knew about it, more people might opt into it.”

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