The Giving Kidney

June 7th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

An inspiring story of a “kidney chain” and how one good deed deserves another.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Early last year, I read a wonderful story in Glamour magazine, “Organ Donation: How Christina Saved 11 Lives.”  In the story, Christina Do, an otherwise healthy young woman, did a selfless thing and donated her kidney to a total stranger. Her act of kindness set off a series of transplants that, at the time, would be the longest so-called “kidney chain” started by a woman.

As Glamour explained the process: Someone who needs a kidney is matched with a stranger willing to donate one. To get the kidney, the patient must find a friend or relative who’s willing to donate one to someone else. The chain hopefully goes on and on, with people paying the donation forward to others. The chain started by Do ultimately spanned 22 people – 11 donors and 11 recipients – and four New York-area hospitals over seven months. Fourteen people involved in the chain appeared in a photo accompanying the story.

I remember feeling inspired by the story. I resolved to give more of myself. But I clearly missed the message that Melissa Arlio, a 26-year-old New Jersey sports fan and marathon runner, took from it – to her, giving more of yourself literally meant donating a kidney. According to a Huffington Post story, Arlio – like Christina Do – didn’t know anyone with kidney disease, but elected to undergo surgery and donate one of her kidneys to a complete stranger last March, starting another altruistic kidney chain through the National Kidney Registry.

"God gave me a healthy body, how could I not share that with someone who needs it, at very little detriment to myself?" she told HuffPo. Arlio said that before the Glamour story, she had no idea people could donate to a stranger, and that it only took about two weeks to start feeling better. (The Glamour article compares the danger to that of an appendectomy.) "Considering you're saving someone's life, it doesn't seem like a lot to give up two weeks,” she said.

Arlio’s family members, the article noted, eventually supported her decision, but only after she had researched any danger to herself from living with one kidney long-term. And if she ever gets sick and needs a kidney, chances are she’ll be covered; donors go to the top of the waiting list.

A cynic might say that no good deed goes unpunished. Arlio was laid off from her job as a copywriter at a design firm during her recovery; the company said they didn’t have enough work for her to do. However, she’s now working with the National Kidney Registry to lobby for donors’ rights.

As a result of Arlio's surgery, a 56-year-old woman from New Jersey she has never met now has her kidney. Two other people have already received new kidneys because of the chain, and she's keeping tabs to find out how many more transplants occur.

In March, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported a chain that had resulted in 16 transplants. The story noted that a national program could push the number of paired donation from nearly 400 last year nationally to 3,000 or more a year – a critical idea to the 93,000 people who are on the national waiting list for kidneys, and of whom only about 17,000 a year get a transplant.

Back to Arlio. She says she’s running slower, gets tired more easily as she continues to recuperate, and will have to find another job, but has no regrets. “If I had an extra kidney, I’d do it again.”