Gift of Life: Even strangers are donating kidneys

Gift of Life: Even strangers are donating kidneys

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - The minute you step into one of the operating rooms at Christ Hospital you realize these guys have done a lot of transplants.

An eclectic mix of Billboard Top 40, alternative, hip hop, and even reggae music bounces off the walls from an RCA radio that's never turned down, let alone off.

And there are jokes. Locker room jokes you share with friends but would be embarrassed for your momma to hear.

Yet even amid all this aural chaos, there's a laser-like focus on the task at hand: Separating a very healthy 60 year-old man from his very well functioning 60 year-old kidney.

This morning, Tom Niehaus, with the help of a diverse group of surgeons and nurses, gave the gift of life to his brother, Bob.

Christ Hospital provided FOX19 access to the Niehauses, with the brothers' permission, and also to the operating rooms as we look into the latest trends and advances in transplants.

They've come a long way. They're generally safe. But these surgeries still take a toll on the donor's body.

"You know, I won't feel well for probably a week or so and heal-up after that and should be fine," Tom said early this morning as nurses were prepping him for surgery.

But he didn't waver once about donating one of his kidneys to his brother. He offered as soon as Bob called saying the doctor thought it was time for a transplant because his kidneys were only functioning at 20%.

"I mean, it was pretty matter-of-fact and he was pretty decisive about it," Bob told me in the pre-op room right next to his brother's. "And he has remained steadfast all the way through."

Tens of thousands of people are not as lucky as Bob Niehaus. They do not have family members who are a good match.

They are like Larry Little, whom FOX19 accompanied to dialysis last Friday. His only hope is that a stranger will be his match.

"They said, 'We could call you at 2 o'clock in the morning and say we have a kidney for you. And you get ready, go in, and hopefully it's the right one,'" Larry said, as a tube in his arm took blood to be cleaned in a dialysis machine about a foot away.

There are nearly 100,000 people like Larry on the waiting list for a kidney. But Dr. Michael Cardi, the medical director of renal transplantation at Christ Hospital, says only about 17,000 transplant surgeries were performed in 2010.

Not enough kidneys are coming from people who've died.

In the last five years, though, Dr. Cardi has seen more and more strangers step-up to donate.

"These are people who have no connection to the recipient," Dr. Cardi said.

He calls them "amazing people" and believes they're motivated by a "calling to give back" or by a similar brush with kidney disease within their own family.

And they can expect to live just as long as a person with two kidneys, said Dr. Cardi.

"They will pretty much lead a normal life," he said. "We do advise, though, patients who have donated a kidney not engage in high-risk activities.

No motorcycle riding.

No bungee jumping, Dr. Cardi said with a laugh.

Back in the operating room, it's been tougher for the surgeons to remove Tom's kidney than they thought going in. Over the years, there's been a huge amount of fat which has attached itself to the organ, even though Tom appears to be a trim, healthy guy. It's common for fat to do this in older men, one of the surgeons told us.

So the team had to cut through that fat to get to the kidney. And they had to take special care with a major artery nearby and the kidney's blood vessels, which would be used in the operating room next door to attach it to Bob's body.

With a final flourish of activity, the team is done.

The lead surgeon pulls the kidney out of Tom's body and places it into a bowl of ice that's being held by another surgeon, who rushes it into the next operating room.

There, a new team takes over with a new surgeon methodically cleaning the blood vessels of more fat tissue before implanting it in Bob's body.

It is an amazing thing to witness this gift of life.

"We use the word hero many times," Larry Little said while undergoing dialysis. "But these people that save somebody's life --- that's very good. I mean, how could you do any better than that?"

Hopefully, doctors will find a hero for Larry soon.

It turns out, Bob's hero has been by his side for 60 of his 65 years. And the gift he gave Bob is a hard one to repay.

"He gets whatever he wants," Bob said before the surgery.

A healthy brother will probably do.


More Information:

Christ Hospital's transplant program:

Larry Little's search for a kidney donor on Facebook: