HARRY DAMON is a Michigan firefighter who wanted to honor the memory of his son, who died at age 24 in a snowmobile accident. Nicole Lanstrum is a U.S. Air Force technical sergeant from Iowa who specializes in intelligence analysis.
Both came to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in June to donate a kidney to a complete stranger, starting a chain of donations that resulted in at least six kidney patients being freed from lives on dialysis.
Here is how it works. An altruistic donor, like Damon or Lanstrum, offers a kidney that is then transplanted into a recipient who already has a willing donor but whose organ is not a match. The incompatible donor then gives a kidney to another patient who has been identified as a match. Theoretically, the chain can continue indefinitely, with each donated organ generating another donation to someone else.
Such a chain “is really a revolution,” says Albin Gritsch, M.D., surgical director of the UCLA Kidney Transplant Program. “It’s such a simple idea … so elegant and so creative, yet extremely powerful in its effect. It is a huge move in a positive direction for patients with kidney failure.”
For Damon, donating his kidney to a complete stranger was a healing experience in itself. “For me, I’m doing this to have new beginnings in my own life,” Damon says. “If I can help create new beginnings for someone else, it’s all the better.” Damon was matched with Sheila Whitney of Compton, Calif., who had been on dialysis for more than six years and whose son, Reginal Griffin, was an incompatible donor. Griffin, in turn, donated his kidney to Keenan Cheung, a father of three from La Canada, Calif. Cheung’s wife, Jeanne, then donated to Sonia Valencia, of Commerce, Calif., and her friend, Celia Contreras, of Pico Rivera, Calif., donated to a patient at a hospital in Northern California. That patient’s brother then donated one of his kidneys, to kick off a new chain.
A similar chain was initiated by Lanstrum. “I just feel we’re all put on this earth to make it better, and no one has the same game plan,” she says. “I think this is something that God supports me in.”