Adrian Luna and Mike Green now have more in common than just their military service in the U.S. Navy. A crisscross of organ donations recently changed their lives and their families forever.
In October, Luna and Green were the first recipients of a single-center paired kidney exchange performed entirely at a VA Medical Center. The donors? Family members of the other Veteran.
A paired kidney exchange (commonly known as a kidney swap) happens when a potential living donor for kidney transplantation is incompatible with the intended recipient. If another compatible donor/recipient pair is identified, the donors can switch, and both patients can receive life-saving transplants.
In this case, Green received a kidney donated by Luna’s wife, Sandra. At the exact same time, Luna received a kidney donated by Green’s sister, Angela. All donor and recipient operations were performed at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston. The recipients and donors are all doing great post-operatively.
“I only had the surgery a few days ago and I already feel like a new person,” said Green, who traveled from Amarillo, Texas for the surgery. “As a type 1 diabetic, I was diagnosed with kidney issues years ago and have been on dialysis since. This surgery has already changed my life.”
When VA doctors told Green he needed a transplant, several of his eight siblings offered to be potential donors. After undergoing a battery of tests, his sister, Angela, was found to be a good match and the surgery was scheduled.
“Not just my brother, but another Veteran”
That’s when Transplant Nurse Manager Priscilla Sloan, R.N. came into the picture.
“Priscilla asked if I would consider donating my kidney to another Veteran whose wife was willing to donate her kidney. That kidney was an even better match for my brother,” said Angela. “I thought – what a win-win for everyone. It was a great opportunity for me to share my good health and help not just my brother, but another Veteran who served our country.”
A Navy Corpsman from 1998 – 2005, Adrian Luna deployed during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He has many vivid memories of his time on the battlefield. Now living in Los Angeles, Calif., he and his wife, Sandra, are parents to five young children. Suffering from kidney disease, he has been anxiously awaiting a kidney transplant for the past several years.
“Waiting for a donor was very stressful for Adrian and for our family. I would have been happy to give him my kidney, but we weren’t a match,” said Sandra. “When we found out that I matched a Veteran in Texas, we were thrilled. I am so grateful to be able to donate my kidney to Mike, and so thankful to Angela for doing the same for my husband and our family.”
At the Houston VA, a dedicated team of specialists including two abdominal transplant surgeons, two urologic surgeons, four anesthesiologists, and four separate operating room teams conducted the seven-hour series of operations. Each donor procedure was performed using three-dimensional laparoscopic equipment through a single small incision that, once fully healed, is barely visible. For the recipient operations, the kidneys are placed in the pelvis through an incision in the lower abdomen.
The need for kidney donors is growing. The paired donation program is a great way to shorten the wait for an organ, says Ronald Cotton, M.D., FACS, surgical director of the Houston VA Solid Organ Transplant Program. “Living donors not only help an intended recipient but can also help someone else on the transplant list who may desperately need a kidney. The gift that any living kidney donor gives, whether they know the person or not, is precious. Agreeing to donate an organ is a truly amazing gesture.”
According to Sandra, the benefits of donating her kidney far outweighed the potential risks. “As a mother of five kids, I did not make the decision to donate my kidney lightly. I really feel I was given a gift in the form of an opportunity to change the lives of both my husband and Mike, who is really a great guy. The surgery went very smoothly, my recovery has been uneventful and, in fact, this surgery has made me a lot more mindful about my own health.”
“The quality of the medical care at the Houston VA has been second to none. I feel like I have a second chance after this surgery,” said Luna, who is looking forward to going home a much-improved quality of life.
According to Nephrology Section and Solid Organ Transplant Program Chief Venkat Ramanathan, M.D., FASN, it takes a great deal of coordination, planning, and teamwork to execute the four simultaneous surgeries necessary for a paired donation transplant. The Houston VA Transplant Team is looking forward to performing more in the future. “I firmly believe living donor transplant is the best option for our Veterans since it offers a better quality of life for the recipient without the wait on the transplant list, which averages eight to ten years. Our entire team is honored to provide this service to our nation’s heroes.”
For more information about the Solid Organ Transplant Program or how to become a living kidney donor, contact the Houston VA Transplant Center at 713-794-8767.
Maureen Dyman is the communications director at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center.