On Sept. 5, Pastor Jeff Smith of the Living Word Lutheran Church in Petaluma will donate one of his kidneys to a complete stranger, starting a chain of seven kidney transplants across the country. The chain includes four recipients who most likely would might have never received a new kidney if not for Smith's willingness to give one of his own.
The husband and father of three grown children first learned about "kidney chains" in a letter he received from a member of his church in early March. He admits he was intrigued by the prospect right away, but said that it took some serious thought to commit to the idea.
"When I first heard about it, it wasn't like I immediately wanted to do it," Smith said. "I began investigating it and thought it sounded like something I might want to do, emphasis on the word &‘might'."
Part of Smith's initial hesitation stemmed from the fact that he doesn't know anything about the person who will receive his kidney. But when Smith realized his single donation could spark the opportunity for multiple people in desperate need of kidneys to be matched with perfect strangers, he knew he had to do it.
Smith's donation is part of a growing phenomenon in America called the kidney donation chain. People in dire need of a kidney transplant often have willing donors in their families and circle of friends, but cannot find a donor that matches their biological needs. That's where a third-party good Samaritan like Smith comes in.
Smith will donate his kidney to a needy recipient who has a friend or family member willing to donate one to someone else in need, thus beginning the kidney donation chain.
All it takes is one willing "good Samaritan donor" as the National Kidney Registry calls it, to start off the chain. Easier said than done since this random donor has nothing physical to gain from donating. There is no relative the donor is trying to help; there is no single person they have in mind. They are simply willing to give a kidney, thus providing the catalyst for a kidney donation chain.
As crazy as it seems to many others, Smith says that he has been conversing with several "good Samaritan" chain starters via email and chat rooms and that they echo his sentiments of feeling a need to donate simply because they are able.
"Not everyone has the health to do this," Smith said. "I've talked to a number of other &‘Good Samaritan' donors who say that they — like me — just felt compelled to do this."
During the last four months Smith has endured multiple doctor appointments, blood draws, urine analyses, kidney x-rays, heart examinations and psychiatrist visits just to be cleared to donate one of his kidneys.
"It's been a very long process," he said. "Even my wife had to meet with a psychiatrist to make sure she was up for it and knew what the donation really involved."
Smith said his wife, Karen Smith — a registered nurse, ironically — was skeptical at first, but nevertheless has always been supportive.
Karen Smith said she was surprised by her husband's proposal in the beginning, but is now simply ready to get the procedure finished.