At 8 p.m., the first calls went out. Hopefully, it would be a match for Gregory Watson, a 61-year-old kidney cancer survivor who’d been on dialysis for more than seven years while awaiting a transplant. Watson was at work at Dee Paper Box Company in Chester when his cell phone rang and the nurse coordinator from the Crozer-Keystone Kidney Transplant Center told him the news. Oddly, his first thought was that he didn’t want it.
“When I heard that the kidney was from a 21-year-old man, I thought, ‘God, if you can save a child’s life with this kidney, give it to him. I’ll wait,’” says Watson.
Another call came in at 11:30 p.m. A second kidney from another donor was available for a different Crozer patient. By 3 a.m., the United Network for Organ Sharing issued a confirmation that the first organ was a match for Watson. He would take it, and the second would go to Roberto Rivera, a 59-year-old Chester resident with N-stage renal failure. Both organs were en route to Crozer-Chester Medical Center.
It was Aug. 27, 2012, and the Crozer-Keystone Kidney Transplant Center was about to perform its first transplants in two back-to-back surgeries. The first kidney transplants in Delaware County would be overseen by Dr. Cosme Manzarbeitia, program coordinator Joan Gramlich, outreach director Joell Alter and six others. By 4 a.m., they were all at Crozer. Thirty minutes later, Watson arrived with his son.
“Driving to the hospital, I had so many thoughts in my head,” Watson recalls. “I was on dialysis three days a week for four hours. I wouldn’t have to do that anymore.”
But he was also worried. “Something could go wrong, or my body could have a bad reaction to the kidney and there could be complications,” he says. “And there was the fact that a young man died, and that is a tragedy. The way I had that in my head was this: The only thing I can do for that man and his family is to take very good care of this kidney.”
In fact, learning to care for a donated kidney was only part of the rigorous process Watson underwent in order to be considered a legitimate organ recipient. The months-long program involves strict dieting and abstaining from all alcohol and drugs. Patients are frequently and randomly tested for compliance. “They have to demonstrate a commitment to caring for the donated kidney,” says Alter. “These kidneys—and every organ donated—are scarce resources and precious gifts. With good stewardship, that kidney should last for at least 10 years—hopefully 15.”
According to UNOS, more than 116,000 people are waiting for organ transplants. In 2012, just 28,500 procedures were performed. Less than a third of those transplants were from living donors, because many kidney-endangering diseases run in families. “If there’s any chance that the family member or friend might need both kidneys for their own health, we will not take one from them,” Alter says.
A vast majority of organs come from deceased donors, who have made their wishes known via their drivers’ licenses—and, hopefully, to family members, who must make the final decision. Once the organs are offered, UNOS manages their recovery and allocation.
Organ matches are made based on blood type, antigens, age of the donor and other factors. Geography is also a big consideration. The United States is divided into sections (Pennsylvania is in Region 2), and organs are first offered locally, then regionally and nationally.
Watson’s kidney was the first to arrive at Crozer by way of medical-courier ground transport. By 10 a.m., he was in surgery. Three hours later, he emerged from the OR. He spent the next 10 days at Crozer, where the kidney initially wasn’t working well. “I don’t know much about mind control, but I concentrated on the kidney and sent positive thoughts to it,” says Watson. “I kept thinking, ‘Come on, kidney, work. Let’s go!’”
Then, one night at about 3 a.m., the bag attached to his catheter filled. “You’ve never seen a grown man so happy to see his own urine,” says Watson. “The mind control worked—or maybe it was the drugs.”
Both Watson and Rivera are fully recovered from their transplants and enjoying healthy, active lives. “Just this morning, I was looking at my two scars and thinking about all the doctors—nephrologists, oncologists, surgeons, nurses—who worked on my body to save it,” says Watson. “Right now, there’s a person standing at a DMV somewhere in America and wondering if he should be an organ donor. I hope he says yes.”