This story originally appeared in UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

Couple becomes link in life-changing kidney 'chain'

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Steven Shaevel has already given his wife, Gail, the best holiday gift he could ever imagine. He gave up a kidney – but not to Gail, who already received a life-saving kidney transplant from a complete stranger a month earlier at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.

Shaevel, director of academic personnel for the UCLA School of Dentistry, gave his kidney to another stranger, who had it transplanted at Stanford
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Steve Shaevel, an administrator with the UCLA School of Dentistry, with his daughter Marissa, wife Gail and family pets Blizzard and Cappy.
Hospital on the same day Shaevel donated it, Nov. 19. His wife received her kidney because Shaevel agreed to donate his.

The Shaevels benefited from a unique arrangement made possible by the National Kidney Registry, a computer program, and the willingness of others to donate a healthy kidney to a stranger so that their loved one or relative can get one from another stranger in return.

Thanks to the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, the Shaevels became a link in the third kidney transplant "chain" to make its way around the country.

It's an inspired way of "paying it forward" that could shorten the five- to eight-year period that people typically languish on dialysis while they wait for a compatible kidney from a deceased donor.

"As Yogi Berra once said, 'If this catches fire, it's going to snowball across the country,'" said Dr. Jeffrey Veale, assistant professor of urology at the
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Dr. Jeffrey Veale
David Geffen School of Medicine and director of the paired-donation program. The Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and the New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center were instrumental in coordinating most of the surgeries in this lengthening chain.

"About 30 percent of people waiting for a transplant have a motivated donor, but that donor simply isn't a match for them," Veale explained. "In this program, we can utilize this motivated donor by matching him or her with someone else." In exchange, the motivated donor's loved one gets a matched kidney from another stranger.

The surgeries were performed in clusters among the pairs of donors and recipients over four months. In each cluster, there was a leftover "bridge" donor, who became the basis of a new cluster.

In the Shaevels' case, the chain started back in July with one altruistic donor, a 40-year-old woman in New York, who wanted to donate her kidney to anyone because she realized, through a friend's and coworker's experiences, how life-changing the surgery is and how quickly the recovery is since it's done laparoscopically.

Last July, she launched the chain that would change 15 lives. She gave her kidney to a woman whose cousin donated his kidney to another woman.  Her husband then donated a kidney to a woman whose son donated his to a man. That man's wife then donated a kidney to Gail, the tenth person in the chain.

To the Shaevels, the chain was a godsend. "It's amazing medically and technically what they can do," Steve said in admiration. "Dr. Veale and the others on the transplant team are so passionate and dedicated about their work. … This has given us a whole new outlook on life."

Thirty years ago, an autoimmune disease had left Gail with one functioning kidney, but that one began to fail badly four years ago. Dialysis, which Gail had to have three times a week for four hours a day, sustained her life. But it left her feeling weak, sick – and trapped. Steve was a willing donor, but, with a different blood type, was not a match.

"I was just resigned to going on dialysis and probably staying on it for as long as I lived," said Gail, since people constantly jump ahead in the line as their need becomes more critical.

While they waited for Gail to reach the top of the waitlist, the couple advocated. Last March on National Kidney Day, the Shaevels, representing Southern California, traveled to Washington, D.C., to participate in the National Kidney Foundation's advocacy day. They lobbied the California congressional delegation for more federal funding for the early detection and treatment of kidney disease.

Then came the fateful call that linked them into the existing chain. Following Gail's Oct. 2 transplant surgery, Steve, the bridge donor for the next cluster, waited for his call to come. In November, he said, "they found a man who was a perfect match for me."

Nov. 19 became the red-letter day for three couples. With amazing cross-country coordination by three medical centers, Steve's kidney was removed at UCLA and flown to Stanford Hospital where it was transplanted to another man. That man's wife had her kidney removed the same day and flown to New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, where it was transplanted in another man. On the same day, his wife's kidney was removed and flown to San Francisco where it was transplanted into another individual.

"Three kidneys, three couples, and all of this happened on the same day," Steve marveled.

Since all the extensive preparation, testing and coordination are handled before the scheduled surgeries, the chances of a better match are higher, he said. "We're hoping that the chain will one day work its way back to UCLA," he said. "It not only cuts down on the time people are on dialysis and frees you up to live a normal life, but it saves a lot of money. Dialysis costs $15,000 a month."

Both the Shaevels are feeling fine and looking forward to spending the holidays with their family. "I feel so blessed," Gail said. "I try to make every day the best day I ever had."

Nearly 79,000 people are on the kidney transplant waiting list in the United States, according to statistics from the United Network for Organ Sharing. In California alone, some 16,240 people are on the list.

"Everytime you put together another cluster on this chain, you take people off the waitlist for a kidney. That lets other people move up the list. So it's really a double positive," Veale said.Anyone interested in information on the program can contact the National Kidney Registry.
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