Spring 2018

Giving for good

Organ transplants from living donors prove superior for patients, according to the U’s world-leading program—and donors can benefit, too


Two years ago, Doobie Kurus read an email that would change his life. 

A former University of Minnesota football player, he stayed in touch with his fellow Gophers. When he read that one of them needed a kidney transplant and was in search of a suitable donor, Kurus wondered: What if that were me? 

In fairly short order, he went from wondering to making a call to the U’s transplant office, which started him on his journey to becoming a living organ donor. 

In doing so, he became part of the University’s world-renowned transplant program, not only where doctors have performed more than 13,000 transplants but also where some of the world’s leading long-term research on living donors takes place. 

Waiting, hoping 

Kurus’ friend was not alone in desperately needing a kidney. 

According to the national United Network for Organ Sharing, more than 126,000 people are waiting anxiously for a lifesaving organ in the United States alone. More than 100,000 of them need kidneys. 

Every day, about 20 people will die for lack of an organ. 

“We bear a responsibility to educate people about the tremendous need in this area and the great opportunity that living donors represent,” says Arthur Matas, M.D., a professor in the Medical School’s Department of Surgery and a leading investigator on living donor outcomes. 

While living organ donations are most common in kidney transplants, they are also an option for liver, lung, pancreas, and intestine transplants. 

“There are so many people in need. I’m glad I took a chance on myself—both my friend and I are better off. My only regret is that I can’t do it again.”
Doobie Kurus, kidney donor

Kidney transplants involve a whole organ—most of us are born with two kidneys and, typically, can live healthy, normal lives with just one—while the other procedures use partial organs. In a liver transplant, for instance, doctors remove one of two lobes from the living donor; remarkably, the donor’s remaining liver grows to its original size again within three months. 

Most living donors are relatives or, like Kurus, friends with the person needing a transplant, but more and more people are stepping up to become nondirected donors—that is, donating their kidney to whomever might need it most. The U established the world’s first nondirected living kidney donor program in 1999. 

The living donor experience 

As Kurus discovered, if you’re interested in becoming a living kidney donor, you first undergo an extensive screening to ensure you’re in optimal health. 

Because of this, U research points to stellar donor outcomes: survival rates are 100 percent, and the vast majority continue to lead active, healthy lives. 

“Donors do quite well,” Matas says. “In the rare instance they develop kidney failure—typically from something unrelated to their donation—they are placed high on the transplant list.” 

The donation process is slow and thorough. 

“I was afraid they might rush me right into surgery,” Kurus remembers, but he discovered the opposite is true. At every step, he recalls, someone was there to assure him that the decision to donate was his. 

Following surgery, kidney donors head home with typical postsurgical restrictions for six weeks. 

“After that they get back to their lives with no limitations and no medications,” Matas says. 

Living stronger, longer 

Outcomes for recipients of living-donor kidneys are also strong. 

According to Matas, between 80 and 90 percent of patients who receive transplanted organs from living donors have functioning kidneys five years after surgery; for patients receiving a deceased donor’s organ, that number drops to between 70 and 80 percent. 

The University, the only center in the country doing long-term follow-up research on living donor transplants, continues to build the knowledge base. This year, a team led by Matas published a remarkable 50-year follow-up of two kidney recipients and their donors. 

“A significant amount of the literature on live donation was generated here,” says Timothy Pruett, M.D., professor and chief of the Department of Surgery’s Division of Transplantation and holder of the John S. Najarian Surgical Chair in Clinical Transplantation. “We’re also one of the few steroid-free transplant centers in the country.”

Up for new challenges 

Associate professor and University of Minnesota Health pediatric nephrologist Priya Verghese, M.D., M.P.H., works with the tiniest transplant patients, some as young as 6 months. 

As one of the largest pediatric kidney transplant centers in the country, University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital welcomes patients from around the world. Not surprisingly, mothers are the No. 1 donors for their children, followed closely by fathers. 

“Now we’re beginning to see more unrelated living donors, which is mind-blowingly inspiring,” Verghese says. 

“Part of the reason that people—both patients and donors—come here,” she adds, “is because we don’t sit down if it isn’t easy. We often end up transplanting patients who were told no by another center.” 

Always improving 

Health care is expensive, and no one knows that better than the medical professionals who work tirelessly to help sick patients. 

“We constantly strive to reduce costs even while we improve outcomes,” says Pruett, “but that comes at another cost, as there’s little extra money in the [health care] system to support the innovative thought that drives advancements.” 

With funding from government sources like the National Institutes of Health at an all-time low, Pruett’s team dreams of advancing transplant science and care with philanthropic gifts for: 

  • The U’s unique, long-term living-donor research, which costs about $75,000 a year and makes significant contributions to the field; 
  • A “biobank” system to store blood samples from every transplant patient and donor, which would cost about $100,000 annually; and 
  • A transplant house, akin to a Ronald McDonald House, for donors, patients, and families who travel long distances to undergo transplants at the U. 

Perhaps the greatest need? More organs. 

“Nationally, we do about 19,000 kidney transplants a year,” says Pruett, a University of Minnesota Health transplant surgeon, “but to meet the demand of people in end-stage renal disease alone, we should be performing about 80,000.” 

Kurus does his part by spreading the word about living organ donation. He says his message isn’t “go donate a kidney,” but rather, “don’t be afraid to consider donating a kidney.” 

Eighteen months after his surgery, Kurus reports that he’s the healthiest he’s ever been, doing triathlons and swimming competitively. 

“I really thought this was an altruistic thing,” he says. “But what I’ve found is that it helped increase my appreciation for my wife, Joyce, my three girls, my friends … the life I have. 

“There are so many people in need. I’m glad I took a chance on myself—both my friend and I are better off. My only regret is that I can’t do it again.”

For more information on becoming a living donor, visit mhealth.org/kidneydonors. Or to learn how your gift can make a difference in transplantation research, contact Jean Gorell of the University of Minnesota Foundation at jgorell@umn.edu or 612-625-0497.