Daily: 5-way organ trade

By Christa Lawler
Duluth News Tribune

Receiving a kidney, Bob Howden tells his buddies, is easier than a sprained ankle.

“What they do is come in from the front near your belly button, drop it in and do some plumbing,” said Howden, 65, of Carlton. “Then you’re good to go.”

While the surgeons at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview, might have made his transplant seem easy, the surgery was part of a unique five-transplant trade that took some finagling to make work. Howden had a donor, but his niece, Heather Reinke, wasn’t a match for him. She was, however, a match for a Twin Cities stranger. Meanwhile, John Tracy of St. Paul had offered a kidney to a close family friend. That wasn’t a match, either. Tracy was a match with Howden.

The handful of strangers were part of a chain that ended with five people receiving kidneys from five donors, a cycle that included three hospitals, two states and less than a week of surgical shuffling.

The 10-person mix of donors and recipients didn’t know anything about the other people involved until they met as a group at a luncheon on Tuesday in Minneapolis. They shared stories, contact information and scars (Howden’s is a five-inch incision mark at a 45-degree angle beneath his belly button).

The retired teacher described his donor as a “heckuva nice guy, with a great sense of humor,” a family man, a healthy guy.

And the meeting:

“It was just so powerful,” he said. “You’ve got five people, 10 people, who without you wouldn’t be around as long. It was very nice.”

Howden’s story

Five years ago Friday, Howden received a lung transplant. He said he believes his lung problem was related to being exposed to Agent Orange when he was in the Marine Corps in Vietnam. The anti-rejection medication he was on began to affect his kidneys, and he began dialysis treatment about 16 months before ultimately getting the kidney transplant.

Dialysis, Howden said, begins to feel like a job. His wife, Sandy, would pack him a lunch, and he would spend the entire day at the clinic three days a week. A person can live like that, but he felt his spirits dip, and his quality of life suffered.

Howden got on a transplant list, but that means waiting three to five years for a kidney from a deceased organ donor, said Catherine Garvey, clinical director of the transplant office at Fairview.

Enter Reinke, 37, a nurse, mother of two kids and avid runner who offered up one of her kidneys to her mother’s brother — her last living uncle.

“I thought that this would be easy-breezy,” she said.

“When she first told me, ‘I’ll give you a kidney,’ I said, ‘Like hell you will. You have two beautiful kids,’” Howden said. “I was totally against it. Then she’s such a stubborn little devil. She said, ‘That’s OK. I’m going to give it to someone.’ She’s a runner. I could see the surgeon rubbing his hands together.”

Because of her medical background, Reinke knew the risks, and she also knew that a person can live a normal life with one kidney. She also knew of these exchange programs, and that by agreeing to donate, she was increasing the odds for her uncle to get a transplant more quickly even though they weren’t a match.

“Despite the fact that we’re both Irish, I won out on that battle,” Reinke said. “I’m much more persistent. Once I make up my mind, it usually goes.”

The chain

The plan kicked off with a donation by a Twin Cities woman with no ties to anyone on the transplant list. She was the connector that made the chain possible as each recipient had a donor whose kidney was a match for the next person down the line.

According to a diagram of the transplant chain provided by Fairview, the first donor had her kidney removed at Fairview. The kidney was flown to Sanford Health in Fargo, N.D. A kidney from a donor in Fargo was driven to a recipient at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, whose donor provided a kidney for another patient in the same hospital. That second patient had a donor whose kidney was sent to Fairview. And, finally, Howden received his kidney at the same hospital from John Tracy, who was donating in the name of his wife’s surrogate mother, Pricilla Deshayes.

Tracy said he didn’t wonder too much about the person walking around with his kidney. The 40-year-old database administrator assumed it was a good person, considering they had another person who loved them enough to go through the surgery, too.

“I was so focused on Pricilla, and making sure she didn’t reject her kidney,” he said. “Mentally, I’d given my kidney to Pricilla, even though I didn’t.”

Tracy is back to 100 percent and said Deshayes called him the other day and sounded like her old self: a character.

Reinke tried running three weeks after the surgery and got an earful from her surgeon. She said four months later she can’t even tell she only has one kidney. Howden is closing in on complete recovery.

This is the sort of thing that bonds people for life, Howden said of his relationship with his niece.

“To say she is a generous person is putting it very mildly,” he said. “She is my hero.”

This story was in the November 28, 2010 edition of the Duluth News Tribune.