Every day, people make a gift to someone in need. It might be a meal or help with a chore. Many times, the gift is something more substantial. Moved by life experience and by the patients he treats in emergency departments at FirstHealth of the Carolinas, one local physician decided to make a very significant “medical donation.” The unusual gift changed at least one person’s life, and possibly saved it.
“There probably isn’t a single shift at work that I don’t take care of a patient who needs or has some kind of transplant,” says Matthew Harmody, M.D., emergency medicine specialist with FirstHealth of the Carolinas. While there, Dr. Harmody often treats people with chronic kidney disease and who are on dialysis.
And for those patients, he has a soft spot.
“For years, I’d thought about donating a kidney, because my father died while waiting for a match for a kidney donation,” he says. “Seeing these patients in the emergency room and knowing that the need for kidneys is so great, I decided not to wait any longer. I wanted to donate a kidney while I was healthy and able to make the donation.”
In September 2017, with the blessing of his wife, Susan, and two adult sons, Dr. Harmody traveled from their home in Southern Pines to UNC Chapel Hill for the surgery. He was 56, about the age that his own father died of renal (kidney) failure while on the transplant list. At that time, 1990, before the use of internet-based databases to speed sharing of medical information, matching organ donors and recipients was difficult. Today, transplant specialists use a national database to match organs.
“Even with this technology, the wait for kidney transplant is long,” he says.
Kidney donations can be from deceased donors or from living donors. The wait for a deceased donor kidney is often five years and could be twice that long, according to the National Kidney Foundation. During the wait, the patient is usually on dialysis three times every week, for almost 20 hours total.
Every year, about 5,000 people die while on the waitlist for a deceased donor kidney, and about 4,000 become too sick for a transplant.
Kidneys from living donors increase the potential pool of matches significantly. Further, living donor kidneys offer other benefits. Compared to deceased donor kidneys, benefits can include helping patients avoid the need for dialysis, quicker functioning of their new kidney, and longer overall survival.
Dr. Harmody has not met the person who received his kidney, but he knows there’s a chance that his gift helped more than one person.
In some living donor situations, a donor volunteers to help relative or friend, but is not a match. So using the donor database, specialists find a match from a stranger, like Dr. Harmody. Transplant specialists use the original donor’s kidney for another on the list, while the relative or friend receives the stranger’s donated kidney. This is called a chain, and longer ones can involve a dozen people.
Dr. Harmody spent years considering this gift, and finally decided to do it last fall. He has no regrets.
“I had two healthy kidneys. I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to make a difference for someone else, knowing that a donation could have helped my Dad,” he says. “Besides, donating did not end up being a big change in my life.”
He returned to his active lifestyle just eight weeks after the surgery.
“Active” might be an understatement, since one of Dr. Harmody’s hobbies is competing in adventure races and ultramarathons. These range from 24-hour foot races to 72-hour endurance courses that cover more than 100 miles, where competitors must even carry all their supplies.
Though Dr. Harmody’s extreme “gift of self” was important to him, he knows such a donation isn’t for everyone.
“I want to be an advocate for any type of medical donation,” he says. “I want medical donations to have a positive impact on more people.”
So in sharing his story, his goal is to encourage people to consider some type of medical donation.
“It could be to donate a kidney,” he says. “But it could also be to donate a pint of blood, or check the ‘donor’ box on your driver’s license. I want people to think about it, and to act.”
To learn more about organ donation, visit www.organdonor.gov.