Christine Stengel first heard about kidney donation when she was living in Seattle and volunteering with the Make a Wish Foundation. The child she was matched up with had benefited from an organ donation that saved her life, which led Stengel to look into donating something herself.
After she moved to Herndon, "I made the decision that I was going to donate anonymously," she said. She would give her kidney to a total stranger who would be a good match and, in return, one of her colleagues, who also needed a kidney but who was not a good match for Stengel's, would move to the top of the waiting list. When her colleague unexpectedly received a kidney from a deceased donor shortly before Stengel was to have her operation, she decided to go ahead with it anyway.
The program Stengel and three other Fairfax County residents participated in, the Washington Regional Voluntary Living Donor program, is the first community-based living donor program in the country that includes the cooperation of seven regional transplant centers. Previously, all other programs had only involved one transplant center. Children's, Georgetown, Howard University, Inova and Walter Reed hospitals all participated as did the National Institutes of Health, and the Washington Hospital Center. Launched in May 2000, the program has already donated seven kidneys in the Washington area.
According to Sara Idler of the Washington Regional Transplant Consortium, which runs the program, there are no health consequences to donating a kidney. "You have two kidneys," she said. "You just need one."
Last year, Inova Fairfax Hospital performed a record 100 kidney transplants. Since it launched the first kidney transplant program in Virginia in 1992, the hospital has performed more than 500 transplants.
A living kidney donor is preferable to a deceased donor, said Idler, because of improved logistics. "You have better end chances of success with living donations. You can arrange it in advance," said Idler.
Stengel and her three Fairfax counterparts, Alyce Sullivan, Don Staton and Elizabeth Crawford donated their kidneys to complete strangers. Usually, people donate kidneys for family members or friends. Anonymous donations are somewhat rare.
The four were honored by the Board of Supervisors at the Board's April 8 meeting. They were presented to the Board by Debbie Smith, of the Fairfax County Commission on Organ Donation and Transplantation, a group founded by former Board Chairman John F. Herrity after he received a heart transplant in 1994. "I can't thank you enough for what you're doing," Supervisor Gerald Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) told the donors.
ONLY STATON AND SULLIVAN have met the people who received their kidneys. Staton's went to a 20-year-old man who had been living on dialysis for nine years. "He said he feels the best he's ever felt in his entire life," said Staton.
Sullivan's kidney went to a 29 year-old man who had been on dialysis for eight years. "He sends me flowers for Mother's Day and my birthday," she said.
The donors said they had a very positive experience with the program. According to Crawford, "they even pay your parking fees at the hospital" during the eight months of physical and psychological testing required to donate a kidney. "It's very user-friendly," she said. "They walk you through."
"Their number one goal is to take care of the donors," said Staton. "They've already got one sick person, they don't need another."
All the donors have a history of donating blood or bone marrow. To many, donating a kidney seemed like the logical next step. Idler described them as "extremely generous people."
The donors emphasized that they recovered very quickly from the operation and had not noticed any difference in their health. "I was up and about" after the operation, Stengel said.
"It was probably the easiest thing I've ever done. ... I've had more pain with a sinus infection," said Sullivan who has gone on 350-mile and 450-mile bike rides since her operation. "Every healthy adult is a potential donor," she said.