When John Davis' kidney began failing in January, his girlfriend's mother decided to donate one of her kidneys to help save his life. That the two weren't actually a "match" — meaning Davis' body would never accept her kidney — didn't matter.
In a groundbreaking program at Johns Hopkins Hospital that is as much about nationwide networking as it is medical innovation, kidney transplants are being arranged not through isolated pairings of patient and donor, but through longer and longer chains of individuals who don't even know each other.
Gone are the days when a donor might be discounted for not being a match with the specific patient, doctors say. Another patient in Hopkins' network might be a match, and perhaps that patient also brought a willing donor to the mix, facilitating a successive chain of matches until everyone in the chain is paired up.
Many donor-patient matches are found in pools that reach well beyond individual circles of family and friends. They are identified by complicated computer algorithms scanning the characteristics of patients and donors across the country.
"John's kidney came from Salt Lake City, from an 'altruistic' donor. They never met," said Dr. Robert Montgomery, director of Hopkins' Comprehensive Transplant Center and Davis' surgeon. "And then John's intended donor is going to give to someone else and continue the chain."
"She graciously stepped up," Davis, 28, said of his donor, Deborah Kocsis, 58, on a recent morning as they sat with family members around his hospital bed, days after the two underwent surgery to facilitate the swap.
Nearly 100,000 people are on a national waiting list for kidneys, out of just over 121,000 waiting for all organs, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), a private nonprofit that manages the nation's organ transplant system under a contract with the federal government.
This year, through Sept. 30, there were 12,584 kidney transplants in the country and 370 in Maryland, 177 of which were at Hopkins and 193 at the University of Maryland Medical Center, according to UNOS data.
Without a willing, living donor, people can wait for a kidney from a deceased donor for years, facing dialysis, other painful side effects of chronic disease and organ failure and, eventually, death.
However, UNOS is facilitating a national Kidney Paired Donation Pilot Program to allow all willing donors to give, even if they aren't a match with their own loved ones. The program works with dozens of hospitals across the country to find participants, including several that coordinate their own pairings, like Hopkins.
The program removes patients with living donors from the national waiting list, in favor of pairing them with other donors and recipients who have compatible blood and tissue types and aren't likely to reject the organs.
"There are so many incompatible donors, but their organs are perfectly suitable for someone. It seemed logical to try and address the needs of recipients who have their own donor," said Dr. Christie Thomas, chair of UNOS' living donor committee and a professor of medicine at the University of Iowa. "Every kidney donated is someone coming off the waiting list."
Paired donations "allow us to honor the wishes of the donors to help their loved ones," Thomas said.
Hopkins, which now finds pairings often, including with the University of Maryland Medical Center, was a pioneer in the concept of a chain, he said.
Rhode Island Hospital performed the nation's first paired transplants, involving two donors and two recipients, in 2000. But the "domino" idea was sparked, Montgomery said, with the arrival at Hopkins in 2003 of an "altruistic" donor, a woman from the Midwest who wanted to donate a kidney but didn't have a specific recipient in mind. The hospital performed its first triple swap that year.
The idea grew from there. Today, many chains still begin with an altruistic donor, and UNOS is running algorithms every couple of weeks to find matches wherever they may be around the country.
"We're constantly checking for matches," Thomas said.
Some modern chains of patients and donors can surpass 20 people, and one involving 60 people began in late 2011 — lines of compassion and selflessness that Davis' father, also named John Davis, calls "tremendous."
"Your heart starts to pound, and every once in a while you get tears in your eyes. It's just an amazing thing," the elder Davis said. "You just can't believe it happens, but it does."
Davis and his family, from the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania, have experience with the process. The younger Davis' recent transplant was his second. His first was when he was in eighth grade.