Health Check: Three-way kidney exchange

Sandra Bethune and Pam Vidal have been best friends forever.

"My aunt and her mom grew up together in Falmouth and when I was four years old my aunt took me to see her best friend in Rhode Island and that's how I met Sandy. She was five and I was four," Vidal said.

So when Sandra's kidneys began to fail, Pam was there, emotionally. And then Sandra had to go on dialysis.

"She was going downhill. You could see it," Vidal said.

A couple of family members came forward. None were healthy enough. Then something happened.

"April 10 last year, I had a dream that Sandy and I were on gurneys together and my kidney just kept pulling over to her," Vidal said.

So Pam called Sandra.

"I have a healthy kidney and you don't and I want to give you my kidney and we cried," Vidal said.

Turned out Pam was perfect donor material, but not for Sandra.

"She said 'OK, so we don't match. But OK, what's the next step', and that's when they introduced us to the exchange program," Bethune said.

"Rhode Island Hospital was the first hospital in the U.S. to do paired kidney exchanges. We exchanged kidneys between two patients who had different blood types and both families agreed they would donate to the opposite family to allow transplantation to occur," said Dr. Paul Morrissey of Rhode Island Hospital.

The kidney exchange is now a national program.

Pam was willing to donate. And two folks in Maryland were willing, and like Pam, not a match for their loved ones. So the three hospitals coordinated a three-way kidney exchange on Feb. 25.

"Timing is everything, so there's a lot of coordination between our center, Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland," Morrissey said. "On the actual day of surgery, all the surgeons are in communication about making their incisions and starting operations at the exact same time."

Six months later Sandra feels wonderful.

"It's like I got my life back," she said.

This kidney exchange is offered to donors like Pam who are willing and healthy enough to donate but not a match for the recipient.

Morrissey says there are advantages to receiving a kidney from a live donor -- the wait can be considerably less, the kidney usually works immediately and it lasts longer.