He was taller than me, a big guy – almost twice my size. He used to play semi-pro football before his kidney failed. He was charming, outspoken, the kind of guy that everyone in the neighborhood knows. He had the same initials as me.
I didn’t meet him until about three months after he’d been given my kidney. When I gave, I knew only that he was a “youngish male.” He’d been on dialysis for years; he told me that when the transplant coordinator called to tell him they’d found a match, he dropped the phone in disbelief. He never thought he’d get a second chance.
Why did I donate my kidney to someone I didn’t know? I’m a pretty nerdy guy, so in some ways, the answer is just that I read some articles and decided the benefits outweighed the costs: on one side of the ledger, laparoscopic surgery, a couple nights in the hospital, some weeks of recovery, minimal or nonexistent long-term health consequences; on the other, the near-certainty that I’d add decades to someone’s life, that I’d save them from brutal years on dialysis, save their family from the funeral of someone who died too young. It was the latter set of arguments that I could hear most clearly.
Another answer might be just that I wanted to do something extraordinary. I’ve been very lucky in life: I wanted to give something back. I’m no hero, truly no better than anyone else, but I wanted the chance to be heroic, at least once. This was my personal Mt. Everest. It was a way to put my mark on the world, to know that I had achieved something extraordinary.
If you’re reading this and are in decent health, you too could save someone’s life. Not just one person, in fact, but several: each year in the U.S. alone, three thousand patients have willing but incompatible kidney donors. One altruistic donor can trigger a domino effect of several more donations that wouldn’t otherwise happen. Typically these chains are five to eight pairs deep, but sometimes as many as thirty-six life-saving transplants can result from just one altruistic donor. I work for an organization, the Alliance for Paired Donation, who puts together these chains.
There are many reasons not to donate. It’s painful; your family probably won’t like it; there’s always a chance, however remote, that something goes wrong. But it won’t make you more likely to have kidney failure in the future, won’t decrease your life expectancy, and won’t be as uncommon a choice as you would think. Every year, hundreds of people each donate their kidney to a stranger, and more people will donate this year than last year, last year than the year before that. In the U.S. since 2001, altruistic kidney donation has increased almost fivefold. Moreover, organizations like the National Living Donor Assistance Center exist to make sure that no one is prevented from donating due to financial reasons.
Ultimately, whoever you are, whatever you do or have done, you personally have the chance to do something heroic, something that helps shape the meaning of your life by giving a gift of incalculable value.
Please email me at the address below if you have any interest in learning more about kidney donation. It’s not for everyone, but I hope that, for many of the people reading this, it’ll be a choice they’ll be proud to tell their grandkids about someday. I know that, speaking personally, it was the best decision I ever made.