As nature planned it, kidneys are a redundant system.
Since the Washington Regional Voluntary Living Donor Program (WRVLD) began soliciting living kidney donors two years ago, at least 14 people have discovered that giving away one of their kidneys can expand the girth of their hearts.
Receiving a transplanted kidney is the one hope for people on dialysis to regain their normal lives.
WRVLD, the first community-wide living kidney program in the nation, offers three options: dedicating a kidney to a living person who’s known to the donor, making a “non-designated” gift to a stranger, and organ donation when death is imminent, such as occurs when the donor is on life-support with no hope of survival.
The Washington Regional Transplant Consortium [WRTC} has seven area transplant centers, so that a recipient at one hospital can receive a kidney from someone at another hospital.
Last week, the first 14 donors were honored at a reception at the Tower Club at Tysons Corner. Among them were a Fairfax man, the father of five children, who gave one of his kidneys to someone he did not know.
The recipient, a 20-year-old pharmacy student, had been diagnosed with end-stage renal disease when he was only 12.
During high school, Greg Lopez of Stafford remembers, “I had friends, but I really didn’t have any life.
“I had to come home really early, by 9 or 10 p.m. at the latest.” Every night, while he slept, a dialysis machine cleaned his blood. The process took from eight to 10 hours.
Lopez described his disease: “The whole kidney pretty much shuts down. The only tissue that is usable is the actual muscle. The filters, and the small arteries to the filters, all get kind of calcified, and everything shuts down.”
When he was 17, Lopez went on dialysis. It kept him alive. His only hope for a normal life was that someone would donate a kidney that would match his blood type and immune system and survive the transplant process.
DURING HIS THREE-YEAR WAIT, Lopez says, there were several phone calls that did not lead to a successful match. “After a while, I put it out of my mind,” he said. “You get a couple of calls, and nothing works out.”
Then, one day, he got a call that did work out. An employee at the CIA in McLean had joined a growing culture of kidney donors there, offering one of his healthy kidneys to be matched with a stranger’s – Greg Lopez.
Don Staton, the donor, had called the WRTC and asked for an application because he wanted to help a co-worker at the CIA whose family member needed a kidney. It wasn’t a successful match, but Staton stayed on the donor list.
“I told my wife when I first applied to donate a kidney,” he said. “She was not excited. She was a little worried. I don’t blame her. I am the breadwinner for the family. We have a good marriage. We have five children between six months and 13 years old.”
But part of the work-up to donate a kidney. beyond the initial battery of medical tests, involves a psychological assessment. “They scheduled a second appointment with the psychologist, and she went with me,” Staton said. “She was a little nervous, but she was very supportive."
In January, 2001, Staton got word that “You are completely, absolutely, approved to donate a kidney,” he said.
It didn’t take long to schedule the surgery at Fairfax Inova Hospital. On Feb. 6, 2001, when Staton was 43 years old, one of his kidneys was removed and transplanted to Greg Lopez, then 20 years old. Dr. Mohammed Alijani did the surgery.
“I WAS A LITTLE BIT SCARED to go into surgery,” Staton said. “But I also kind of felt there was somebody who needed me.
“I didn’t know who that person was, but I felt like God knew who that person was. I just took it all on faith.
“We read from the Scriptures every day as a family,” said Staton. “We pray together in the morning, and we pray together at night. We say a blessing on the food. We go to church every Sunday, and we are active in service to other people.
“Every year, Fairfax County contacts us, and we go and rake leaves for other people. We try to help out other people.”
The family worships at the Fairfax ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints: “The Mormons,” as their public service announcement states.
Matching kidneys between strangers is a double-blind process. Only when both parties designate they’d like to meet is a meeting arranged. Several weeks after the surgery, Don, the donor, met Greg, the recipient.
“I remember that he was so incredibly grateful,” said Staton. “He kept thanking me, over and over again.
“We stayed and visited for a good two or three hours. Every time I turned around, Greg was just thanking me, and thanking me, and thanking me.
“He kept telling me he could not believe how good he felt. He was so young when he got ill, he could not remember feeling energetic and healthy. He forgot what it was to feel good.”
Greg’s take on Don was something close to hero worship.
He focuses on the category Don occupies as a donor: non-designated donation, or the voluntary decision, when one is not ill, to undergo surgery to give a healthy organ to a complete stranger.
“People consider the person who is sick,” Greg said. “You are not only on a list, but they are too, as a donor. Seeing it from the person’s side that is not sick, is different. They are healthy. They have a choice.”
“There is a level of respect for somebody who can wait to give somebody [else] a part of their body to live,” Greg said.
“It is a life-changing thing. What has changed myself is somebody else having to wait to give [me] life.”
At their first meeting, the two men exchanged gifts.
Greg gave Don a bouquet of flowers, and a gift certificate to a music store. “I am not a big music person, but it was a gift from the heart,” Don said, smiling.
Don gave Greg a silver coin from the United States mint. It was pure silver, and dated 2001 “as a gesture that 2001 was a new start for him.”
The two men and their families have met two more times since their initial meeting two years ago.
“Right about the one-year anniversary, he came to my house and had dinner with my family,” Staton said. “My wife and kids really liked them. He is a very warm, outgoing, and very humble person.”
When they met again last week for the third time, Staton said, “those characteristics are still present. He is very loving, and very humble, and very grateful for the gift he’s been given.”
“I can go for weeks of months at a time without remembering that I donated a kidney,” Staton says. “There is no change at all in my life, or my activity level. Donating a kidney has not had any implications on my life whatsoever.
“I am at the point that I am kind of forgetting that it happened. “It is nice to see Greg. It kind of reminds me. If I could go back and do it all over again, I would.
“I am so grateful that my kidney went to Greg. He is such a wonderful young man. He’s got great potential to help other people. It will be fun to watch, and see what he does with his life.”
“I love him. He’s awesome,” said Staton of the man who has his kidney.
Greg, now living with his family in Stafford, says he wants to complete his education as a pharmacy technician at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, the closest source for the program he needs.
For more information on kidney donation, call (703) 641-0100 or (703) 787-5282.