by George Taniwaki

I recently came across a series of articles about one very generous man. A man who decided to help a distant relative he barely knew. A man who donated his kidney to a stranger he didn’t know at all. And a man who despite being only a mediocre swimmer is now in training to swim across Lake Ontario to raise money and awareness for a camp for dialysis patients and their families.

Mike Zavitz of Pickering, Ontario was 43 years old when he offered to donate his kidney to a distant relative in 2010. They were not a match, but Canada had just introduced a new Living Donor Paired Exchange (LDPE) program that year (see Dec 2010 blog post).

The program is small resulting in a perhaps a dozen kidney swaps (see Kidney swaps explained below) per year, meaning the chances of finding a match are slim. But Mr. Zavitz and his relative were lucky enough to find a match and became one of the first participants in the Canadian LDPE program and the first one at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton, Ontario.

The story of Mr. Zavitz’s donation appeared in The Hamilton Spectator Dec 2011. Mr. Zavitz’s kidney ended up saving a young man he never met and whose name he didn’t know. In exchange, that man’s  father donated a kidney to Mr. Zavitz’s relative. The surgeries occurred on Feb 2, 2011.

Mr. Zavitz met his recipient, Jesse Hunt, for the first time a year-and-a-half later (The Hamilton Spectator May 2012).

When explaining why he did it, Mr. Zavitz said it was in response to a lifetime of second chances he has received since he was abandoned as a baby and later adopted. “They don’t make Hallmark cards saying, ‘Thank you for rescuing me from a lifetime of foster care and possibly death.’”

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Figure 1. Mike Zavitz interviewed. Video still from Hamilton Spectator

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Mike Zavitz keeps on giving

The story of Mr. Zavitz’s generosity doesn’t end with his donor surgery. In an Aug 2013 story, The Hamilton Spectator reports that Mr. Zavitz plans to swim 22 kilometers (14 miles) across Lake of Bays near Algonquin Park.

His swim has two purposes. The first is to raise money for the Lions Camp Dorset, a camp designed for dialysis patients and their families. It is a place where they can get away for a week, while still receiving treatment. His goal was to raise CAN$10,000 for the camp.

In a quote in the Hamilton Spectator article, Helen Walker, administrative coordinator of the camp said, “To have somebody who has been involved in a transplant want to give back is amazing. Without Camp Dorset, it would be next to impossible to have a getaway at an affordable price.”

The recipient of Mr. Zavitz’s kidney, Jesse Hunt, had this to say, “I think it’s awesome. When you are not on dialysis, you realize the freedom you have. You can’t travel [on dialysis] or go to a cottage or get on a plane. If you can get away, it’s very important.”

Mr. Zavitz’s second goal is to raise awareness for organ donation, and especially living donation. His long distance swim shows people that organ donors can still live incredibly active lifestyles. In fact, becoming a donor may be a life changing event that actually makes you more mindful and more active.

A follow-up report on CKLP FM radio Aug 2013 says Mr. Zavitz completed the swim in 10 hours and 45 minutes. He exceeded his goal and raised CAN$11,000 for Lions Camp Dorset.

Next year, Mr. Zavitz plans to swim Lake Ontario, a distance of about 52 km (32 miles). To follow Mr. Dorset on Facebook, his page is at Tied Together Swim. To learn more and to make a donation go to tiedtogetherswim.com. The video featured on the website was produced by his recipient Mr. Hunt, who is a filmmaker.

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Figure 2. Screenshot of the Tied Together Swim website

A list of camps for children with special medical needs in the United States is available at the Transplant Living website.

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Kidney swaps explained

A kidney swap begins with a patient who needs a transplant  and has a willing donor who is healthy but is not blood type or HLA compatible. Through a matching service, called a kidney exchange, they can find another patient-donor pair in the same situation where the donors in each pair match the patient in the other pair (Fig 3a).

Finding pairs that match each other is sometimes difficult. Matching becomes easier if a nondirected donor, that is a person who does not have a patient in mind but just wants to donate a kidney enters the exchange. Then all the matches only have to be one-way (Fig 3b).

KidneyExchangePair

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Figures 3a and 3b. An example of a kidney swap (top) and kidney chain (bottom). Images by George Taniwaki

The use of kidney swaps  and kidney chains to facilitate kidney transplants is a recent phenomena. The first multihospital kidney chain occurred in the U.S. in 2007 (see Sept 2009 blog post). These kidney swaps are getting more common in the U.S. (see June 2010 blog post) but are still fairly rare outside the U.S.

Canada started up a Living Donor Paired Exchange (LDPE) program in Oct 2010 (see Dec 2010 blog post). It only allows swaps. Chains starting with a nondirected donor are not yet permitted in Canada.

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