Kidney "Swap" Creates New Transplant Opportunities
Omaha, Neb - The Nebraska Medical Center is taking part in a nationwide initiative to match more people needing a kidney transplant with people who are willing to donate. It's called a donor swap. It works by pairing two sets of donors and recipients who are incompatible with each other.
People like Joe and Deborah Vasquez from Papillion, Neb. Joe's diabetes diminished his kidney function to the point where he needed a transplant. His wife Deborah stepped forward immediately to donate one of her kidneys. When they found out they were not a match for transplant, doctors at The Nebraska Medical Center told them about the option of swapping.
That's where Larry Lunzer of Superior, Neb and his brother Danny of Normal, Ill. came in. Larry's seven siblings all wanted to help, but of those who were eligible to donate, none was a match for Larry. But Deborah Vasquez was. And Danny Lunzer was a match for Joe Vasquez. So instead of donating a kidney to his brother, Danny donated his kidney to Joe, a man he'd never met. And instead of donating her kidney to her husband, Deborah Vasquez's organ went to Larry Lunzer, a man she'd never met.
"There is certainly a national push for more of these transplants," said Michael Morris, M.D., Transplant Surgeon at The Nebraska Medical Center. "Several medical groups across the country have banded together to increase the number of potential patients."
A national search was not necessary in this case. Both recipients were already patients at The Nebraska Medical Center.
When it came time for the transplant, Dr. Morris worked alongside a team of three other transplant surgeons: R. Brian Stevens, M.D., Lucile Wrenshall, M.D., and David Mercer, M.D. The operations took place nearly simultaneously; one team of surgeons removed Deborah Vasquez's kidney while another team removed a healthy kidney from Danny Lunzer. His kidney was taken immediately to another operating room where it was transplanted into Joe Vasquez. The kidney taken from Vasquez's wife went immediately to the operating room where it was transplanted into Larry Lunzer.
"It's amazing what they did for me," Joe Vasquez said of the Lunzers. "What my wife did for me, that man did for his brother."
Both Vasquez and Lunzer each spent at least 12 hours every week on dialysis for more than a year and a half. Lunzer had to drive 60 miles each way for his dialysis three times a week. Thanks to the transplant, he now looks forward to life without dialysis. "The swap allowed us to have the transplant sooner," Lunzer said. "One week after Danny and I decided to take part in the swap, the phone rang and the process began."
The program at The Nebraska Medical Center is part of a larger initiative nationwide through the Paired Donation Network. People interested in taking part in a swap transplant are entered into a nationwide database. Medical screenings and physical exams match donors with recipients. When a swap transplant is agreed upon, donors travel to the recipient's hospital. Travel was not an issue for the Vasquez and Lunzer families; both were being treated at The Nebraska Medical Center. Their operation was the third donor swap at the medical center. This was Lunzer's second kidney transplant. His first was in 1985 at a different hospital. He was amazed at how far the science of organ transplantation had come in 23 years.
"The technology and the knowledge has increased tenfold from what it was then," said Lunzer. "When I left the hospital in 1985, I was very swollen from all the drugs. Now, I look like me. I feel like me. It's not even three weeks since the transplant and I'm back at work."
"We have come a long way," added Dr. Morris. "A transplant recipient used to be in the hospital for a month for recovery. Now it's a couple of days. Much of that has to do with our ability to prevent rejection."
Lunzer's upbeat attitude was bolstered by his doctors and nurses before and after the transplant. "Seeing the confidence of the doctors, that helped me through my concerns," he said. "You can't be scared." The Vasquezes get inspiration from their four children. "They were scared at first," said Deborah Vasquez. "But we explained it to them, and once they understood, they were okay with it."
"In fact," said Joe Vasquez, "There's a great lesson in it for them. It shows how committed we are to each other. The kids have been a great help to us." The family is already looking forward to next summer which, if Joe continues his strong recovery, may hold a trip to Disneyland, something the family of six could not have done while Joe was on dialysis.
The Lunzers are also planning for the future. They look ahead to Labor Day and a family reunion, something kidney disease would have prevented Larry from attending.
The Vasquezes and Lunzers have not met in person yet. Larry Lunzer says if everyone is still healthy in five years, he would love to get together and express his thanks in person.
"This transplant has given me my life back," Lunzer said. Joe Vasquez already knows what he'll say. "I'll tell the guy thanks and give him a hug. He's given me my freedom."Back to Top