Chicago doctor donates kidney to stranger, starts a chain that saves two lives
CHICAGO – April 6, 2023 – Every day as a nephrologist at Northwestern Medicine, Aleksandra Gmurczyk, MD, sees patients who are suffering from kidney failure. She encourages them to take their medications as prescribed, go to all their dialysis appointments and to consider the possibility of a kidney transplant so they can live healthier, longer lives.
As a physician who also serves patients at Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, she often speaks with veterans who would rather stay on dialysis than undergo organ transplantation. Many of her patients distrust the medical system, and some can’t be convinced that a kidney transplant could transform their health. Several years ago, she began to consider how she could change her patients’ opinions if she donated one of her own kidneys to someone in need.
“I wanted to help someone,” Dr. Gmurczyk, 46, said. “I know people can live healthy lives with one kidney, and I know the high need for living donor organs. I hoped by donating my kidney I’d help someone, and I also wanted to inspire others to donate.”
Dr. Gmurczyk’s only challenge? Finding the right person to receive her kidney. She thought of all her patients, and realized her colleagues at Northwestern Memorial Hospital would have to help her make the decision.
“It would have been difficult to choose one person and I couldn’t choose one,” Dr. Gmurczyk said. “I decided to put my donation into a pool and hoped it would help more than one person.”
I hoped by donating my kidney I’d help someone, and I also wanted to inspire others to donate.
On Feb. 16, 2023, Dr. Gmurczyk kicked off a kidney paired donation, which occurs when patients have people who are willing to donate their kidneys, but they aren’t good matches with their designated recipients. Instead, the donors swap recipients, and give their kidneys to patients who are a better match. Dr. Gmurczyk donated her kidney to a hard-to-match Virginia patient she had never met, and that patient’s husband donated his kidney to a Northwestern Medicine patient in Chicago.
“It’s the transplant world’s version of the perfect ‘domino effect,’” said John Friedewald, MD, medical director of kidney and pancreas transplantation at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “As a nephrologist, Dr. Gmurczyk understands the benefits and risks of becoming a living organ donor, and every day she sees patients who need kidneys. Our entire team was humbled to support her as she went through this process. We weren’t surprised that she chose to give the gift of life, but we were all moved by this experience.”
Living donor kidneys can function for about twice as long as deceased donor kidneys. Kidneys from living donors are also more likely to function right away, helping recipients recover more quickly.
Dr. Gmurczyk has chronicled her journey on social media and raised awareness about living kidney donation by sharing the facts with her followers.
“I see how hard life can be for patients on dialysis,” Dr. Gmurczyk said. “It’s like a part-time job with appointments that are three times a week and four hours per session. They can’t travel, go overseas and it can be tough for them to work. It’s heartbreaking.”
Art Reyes of Chicago knows firsthand how lifechanging a kidney failure diagnosis can be. After diabetes caused irreversible kidney damage, he began dialysis to remove waste products from his blood in November 2021. Prior to his illness, he and his wife enjoyed spending time with their many nephews and nieces. Dialysis forced him to focus more on his health and his next medical appointments, and it stole precious time from his family.
“It was very depressing, and you kind of lose hope,” Reyes, 51, said. “You hear all the statistics, and that it can take up to eight or 10 years to get a deceased donor. After we found out my family members weren’t a good match for me, I was thinking I should just enjoy the time I had left.”
Then, Reyes received a shocking call: if he was willing to receive an anonymous donor kidney, he could have surgery in two weeks.
“I was counting the days until surgery,” he said. “I knew the donor could back out at any time, and then the dream would be over.”
I was counting the days until surgery. I knew the donor could back out at any time, and then the dream would be over.
But what Reyes didn’t know was that Dr. Gmurczyk was committed to her donation. She prepared for surgery and then began the typical donor journey. She had a short hospital stay after the donation and didn’t know she’d helped more than one patient until weeks after surgery.
“It was exactly what I’d hoped for, and my recovery was exactly what we tell donors to expect,” Dr. Gmurczyk said. “I even walked home after my surgery. I returned to work two weeks after I donated and was just a little tired each night after work. I’m so glad I made the decision to donate, and I encourage others to explore the process. It’s much easier than you think.”
Dr. Gmurczyk may have already inspired one of her patients to get a kidney transplant. For years, she had been trying to convince the patient to consider the surgery, and following her donation, the patient decided to start the evaluation process.
Currently 90,000 people in the United States are waiting for a kidney donation and 85 percent of patients waiting for organ donation are waiting for a kidney, according to Donate Life America. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates more 1 in 7 adults in the United States have chronic kidney disease.
“If you are a healthy adult and you think you may be an eligible kidney donor, I encourage you explore the possibility,” Dr. Gmurczyk said. “All of my appointments prior to donation were done in one day, and I only needed a short amount of down time after my surgery. I feel like I benefited as much as the recipients, because I know how much my decision to donate will help improve their lives.”
People who are interested in becoming kidney donors can visit nmlivingdonor.org.
The Northwestern Medicine Organ Transplant Center is a leader in research, innovation and patient care in the Midwest. The team spans the spectrum of basic science, translational and clinical research, and offers novel approaches to immunosuppression, including human clinical trials in immune tolerance, state-of-the-art genomic and proteomic immune monitoring, and health services and outcomes research.