Ten years after Hallie Twomey’s father received a heart transplant that saved his life, the Auburn woman decided it was time to donate an organ of her own.
That was last summer, when 20-year-old Ryan Dasilva of Connecticut found out that he would need a third kidney transplant – and that a match would be nearly impossible to find.
Meanwhile, Gary Rutter was in his fifth year on dialysis, traveling from his home in Old Orchard Beach to Biddeford three times a week for the treatments.
On Dec. 19, all of them, along with Dasilva’s father and two residents of Michigan, were in operating rooms in three states, where three lives would be saved by three strangers.
Transplanting kidneys through a chain of paired donations is a relatively unusual but growing practice. It relies on meticulous planning among hospitals, efficient transportation of the organs and, above all, people who are willing to give a part of themselves to someone they don’t know.
In this case, it all started with Twomey.
“She made the whole thing happen,” said Dr. Juan Palma, who removed one of her kidneys that Thursday morning at Maine Medical Center in Portland.
At 12:45 p.m., the organ was driven from Portland to Yale-New Haven Hospital in Connecticut. It arrived at 4:30 p.m., to be transplanted into Ryan Dasilva.
Fifteen minutes later, one of his father’s kidneys, which had been removed at Yale-New Haven Hospital that morning, arrived at the University of Toledo Medical Center in Ohio for a 47-year-old woman from Michigan, who did not want to be identified.
Another kidney, from a 36-year-old Michigan man who wouldn’t be named, was flown from Toledo to Portland for Gary Rutter’s surgery that afternoon.
Matching kidneys among groups of strangers is still a fairly new concept, said Dr. Jim Whiting, who operated on Rutter. Maine Medical Center has participated in fewer than 10 of them, he said.
But the practice is growing, and the benefits are huge. Whiting and Palma will take part in another one in two weeks.
“The more pairs you enter into the equation, the more matches you will find,” said Palma.
Because of that, he said, the waiting time is only a couple of months, compared with the years that people like Rutter wait for a kidney from a deceased donor.
And kidneys transplanted from living donors last 15 years, on average – nearly twice as long as those from deceased donors, Palma said.
According to the National Kidney Foundation, 16,812 kidney transplants were done last year, with 11,043 from deceased donors and 5,769 from living donors. Nearly 97,000 people in the United States are awaiting transplants.
The complication to paired donations is that a recipient must know a donor who’s willing to give a kidney to a stranger.
Rutter lucked out.
Twomey is a rare case. As what’s known as an altruistic donor, all she asked was that a kidney go back into the Maine Medical Center transplant program, in return for hers.
“That is like a freebie, like winning the lottery,” Palma said.
The 43-year-old wife and mother had been thinking about donating since her father, who waited in the hospital for a heart for more than three months, was saved by a transplant. He’s 70 now and his heart is still going strong, she said.
Because of the experience, Twomey started volunteering with the New England Organ Bank, telling her story at churches and Masonic lodges to raise awareness about organ donation.
In 2010, that story changed. Her 20-year-old son, C.J., shot and killed himself in front of her. He had designated on his driver’s license that he wanted to be an organ donor.
Twomey has met the man who got one of her son’s kidneys. He recently walked his daughter down the aisle, she said. The recipients of her son’s heart and other kidney didn’t survive.
Twomey said she felt numb for years after her son’s death, but finally realized that donating an organ could be a way to honor him.
“Knowing we’ve given other people life, just like a family gave my dad life, keeps me going,” she said.
Although Twomey knew that her donation wouldn’t necessarily save a life, it was worth the try, she said.
She has never met any of the three people who received new kidneys that day.
All six people who had the surgery – the donors and the recipients – are “doing great,” said Whiting.
That includes Rutter, who was born with kidney problems 50 years ago. One kidney failed in 2006, and he had his second kidney removed in 2008.
“That was like a magic key,” Rutter said of the transplant. “You’re back to your old self.”
For Twomey, who describes herself as someone who can’t sit still, being tired all the time – a lasting effect of the anesthesia – has been an adjustment.
“I take a shower and I feel like I need a nap,” she said.
But that’s a minor sacrifice, for what she’s gotten in return: a chance to shift her focus away from her grief over her son to the people who have gotten another chance at life.
“If there were other organs they could take, I’d do it in a heartbeat,” she said.
Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: