When Kristen McLoughlin lost her sister in a car accident three years ago, she was comforted by the fact that people benefited from her sister's organs. Then a thought struck her: Why shouldn't she donate one of her own kidneys while she was still living? Well, nine days ago McLoughlin underwent a novel procedure in which her kidney was removed through her belly button. The small incision in her navel will leave no noticeable scar.
"I decided, though, to wait until I was really sure that I wanted to do this for its own sake and not out of grief for my sister," says the 22-year-old from Madison Heights, Va., who was operated on at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.
What McLoughlin did was truly extraordinary, especially since she decided to donate a kidney without even knowing anyone who needed one. She turned to the Internet, logging onto matchingdonors.com to find someone who might match her blood type. She found a 54-year-old woman with the same blood type and who had been waiting for a kidney for 18 months. "We E-mailed each other and did a lot of phone calls," McLoughlin told me Wednesday evening on her way up to Baltimore for a checkup with her surgeon. Kidney donor and recipient finally met in February when McLoughlin had a host of medical tests to determine if she was in good health and confirm that she had two functioning kidneys. "Now we're like family," she says.
It's hard enough to get people to sign up to donate organs in the event they die, much less to get someone to donate an organ when they're living. It's particularly difficult to get family members to approve the donation of a deceased loved one's organs. A review of 20 studies published this week in the British Medical Journal shows that doctors often make the mistake of asking for organ donation at the same time they deliver the news that a loved one has no hope of recovery. They found that having a time gap between giving the wrenching news and making an organ donation request yields a greater likelihood of donation.
When I asked McLoughlin how she felt, I was surprised to hear she's still having discomfort and taking prescription painkillers. She told me that, even though the incision was small, the surgeon had to cut through muscle to get to the kidney. That's frequently the case with laparoscopic surgeries. All too often, patients think a small incision equals a pain-free recovery, but while recuperation is easier than traditional abdominal surgery, it's by no means painless. (Most kidneys nowadays are removed with several small incisions using laparoscopes; only three hospitals, including UMMC, have done a single-incision removal via the navel.)
What went through your head when you were told that you'd be the fir st at the hospital to have the belly - button procedure? I asked McLoughlin. I wondered if she was, well, nervous at the thought of being a bit of a pioneer. "I wasn't," she says, "because they didn't tell me exactly how they were removing it. They told me later they would have taken it out with extra incisions if needed."
Overall, she says she's very pleased with the way things worked out. "I have absolutely no regrets," she says. "I'm feeling better every day, and I'm so happy that I was able to improve someone's life, to know that she'll have more time to spend with her grandchildren."