Donating a kidney to a stranger is an act of love – and of life. It allows a sick person to become healthy again, and saves the medical system $50,000 a year.
There is inherent risk in all surgery, but donors assume that, if something goes wrong, the system will take care of them.
However, that is not what happened to a man from British Columbia who donated his kidney to an anonymous recipient in Toronto in 2009, as part of an innovative new “kidney swap” program. He ended up with a bulge on the left side of his abdomen caused by a pinched nerve during surgery. “Every time I look down, I see this big flap of skin. The nerve that contracts the muscle was cut, which means that the area is flabby and lopsided,” he says. He has tried for two years to get B.C. Health to pay for the surgery to correct his asymmetrical abdomen; the ministry has refused, however, saying the $10,000 operation would be cosmetic. The Ontario hospital where he donated his kidney says it can't help him either.
Health authorities should correct a wrong, and provide care to someone who performed a selfless act, only to end up with a disfigured body.
The man didn't just save one life; his decision to donate a kidney triggered a living-donor kidney swap involving 10 people. As someone with blood type B, he was a match for a patient who had a donor who was medically incompatible. This person's donor then gave to another patient and, altogether, five people received new kidneys in this exchange.
The program, run by Canadian Blood Services, aims to address Canada's chronic shortage of kidneys. Patients with donors who are medically incompatible can sign up in a national kidney exchange database and widen the pool of potential matches. Since it was launched in 2009, there have been 91 transplants; 19 have involved altruistic donors without intended recipients such as the B.C. man. The Living Donor Paired Exchange program relies on these unsung heroes to save lives; 35,000 Canadians have kidney disease and last year 82 died while waiting for a kidney to become available. “We have to make sure donors don't get lost in the system,” said a CBS spokesman. “It's regretful he has had a frustrating experience after the gift he has given.”
Indeed, in order to keep attracting altruistic kidney donors, the program must be able to reassure them that their postoperative medical needs will be dealt with no matter where they live. “I feel like I have been left on my own to pursue this,” says the man, who, despite all, remains a keen supporter of the program.
B.C. Health should do the right thing and repair damage caused by an act of altruism. Kidney donation should be rewarded, not punished with indifference.