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Published: 10/17/2008

Maumee group celebrates linking strangers to give, receive kidneys

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Angela Heckman, 33, an Owens Community College student who received a kidney from a stranger in Phoenix, joins her mother, Laurie Sarvo. Her chain of donations started with a Michigan man. Angela Heckman, 33, an Owens Community College student who received a kidney from a stranger in Phoenix, joins her mother, Laurie Sarvo. Her chain of donations started with a Michigan man.
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Jones Jones
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Barb Bunnell, who got a kidney from then-stranger Matt Jones, dances with him at his wedding in June. Barb Bunnell, who got a kidney from then-stranger Matt Jones, dances with him at his wedding in June.
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Dialysis treatments dominated about a third of Angela Heckman's life until a Michigan man the Toledo woman never had met started a chain of kidney donations for purely altruistic reasons.

Little more than a year after her kidney transplant, Ms. Heckman is a diagnostic medical sonography student at Owens Community College, learning how to be an ultrasound technologist and help others in need.

And the 33-year-old has become close with that initial chain donor, Matt Jones of Petoskey, as well as the Phoenix man who gave a kidney to her.

"Everything's been going great," said Ms. Heckman, who had an autoimmune disorder that caused her kidneys to fail. "Feeling good."

Tomorrow, Ms. Heckman, Mr. Jones, and others plan to gather in Perrysburg to celebrate the Maumee-based Alliance for Paired Donation Inc.'s success with coordinating donation chains nationwide.

Mr. Jones will be recognized for starting the first chain by donating a kidney on July 18, 2007. So far, the chain has helped 10 people in six states receive life-saving transplants.

A father of five, Mr. Jones said he long has been a blood donor and became interested in kidney donation after seeing a television program about four years ago.

The 29-year-old said he never questioned his decision, got nervous about the surgery, or even thought about waiting in case one of his children would need a transplant someday.

"I've never been a big fan of 'what ifs,' " Mr. Jones said.

"If everyone led their lives on 'what ifs,' nothing would get done."

University of Toledo transplant surgeon Dr. Michael Rees started working on the "never-ending altruistic donor" method in 2000 in hopes of increasing the number of transplants performed.

He created the alliance to help people with willing donors who end up not being matches by lining them up with other recipients and donors, either in traditional paired exchanges or through a chain.

More than 77,000 patients are awaiting kidney transplants in the United States, yet fewer than 17,000 were performed last year.

Paired kidney donations could provide transplants for up to 3,000 more patients a year, the alliance estimates.

"It's definitely going to happen," Dr. Rees said. "Paired donation is going to be a routine thing in about five years."

As part of the first chain, Laurie Sarvo of Toledo, wanted to donate a kidney to her daughter, Ms. Heckman, but the women were not a match.

But soon after Mr. Jones altruistically donated his kidney to Barb Bunnell in Phoenix, her husband, Ron Bunnell - who was not a match for her - donated to Ms. Heckman at the University of Toledo Medical Center.

Seven weeks later, Ms. Sarvo donated her kidney to a recipient in Columbus, the next link in the first chain, and Mr. Jones waited with Ms. Heckman and her sister during that surgery.

It was the first time Ms. Heckman and Mr. Jones met, and they have become friends. They're friends with the Bunnells too.

The Bunnells even attended Mr. Jones' wedding in June, he said.

Tracy Armstrong of Maumee started the alliance's second chain on Dec. 7, 2007, in Columbus. He volunteered to be a donor for a friend's daughter but was not a match, so he decided to become an altruistic donor through the alliance.

"I got into it to help somebody, so I just decided to continue on so I could help someone," Mr. Armstrong said.

Third and fourth chains also are in the works, and 67 transplant programs nationwide are involved with the alliance, said Laurie Reece, the alliance's executive director.

Dr. Rees said another 30 U.S. transplant programs are considering working with the alliance, and he has received inquiries from Australia, India, Italy, Canada, and elsewhere about using its computerized matching program.

Besides honoring donors and recipients, the alliance's celebration tomorrow will help raise money for the nonprofit alliance's work, such as providing transportation for kidney donors.

The alliance's fund-raiser tickets are $100 and available at 419-360-7445 or www.paireddonation.org. The event, which includes dinner and a silent auction, starts at 6:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Hilton Garden Inn at Levis Commons in Perrysburg.

Contact Julie M. McKinnon at:

jmckinnon@theblade.com

or 419-724-6087.



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