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New year, renewed life

By Linda McIntosh

Contributor

Three-pair kidney exchange performed in La Jolla

Duwayne Fleming calls it a “Christmas miracle.” A couple of weeks ago, he got the new kidney he’d been waiting for.

“I feel like a new man,” said Fleming, 69, who is now freed from his kidney dialysis machine. Fleming recalled that before the surgery, he could hardly walk halfway down the street without panting. He now plans to go back to swimming and playing golf, which he hasn’t done for years.

Fleming was one of six people in a triple-swap kidney transplant operation, the first of its kind in San Diego.

The three-pair kidney exchange was performed during three sets of surgeries on Dec. 15 and 16 at Scripps Green Hospital. The recipients are doing well and were discharged from the hospital to celebrate the holidays with their families.

The milestone surgeries began with a problem.

Three living donors each were willing to give a kidney to a specific person, but couldn’t because of incompatible blood and antibody types.

Fleming’s stepdaughter wanted to donate her kidney to him, but it was not compatible, so things looked bleak. At the same time, a husband wanted to give his wife the kidney she needed, but they didn’t match up. An anonymous donor was ready to donate a kidney to an ailing college student, but they weren’t compatible.

The solution was to swap kidneys from incompatible donors and match them with compatible recipients,

“It’s exciting when we find ways to get more people transplanted,” said Jonathan Fisher, one of the surgeons performing the triple swap, along with Christopher Marsh and Randolph Schaffer. “The good news is that this can be done with thousands of people.”

There are 80,000-plus people waiting for kidney transplants and many die waiting, Fisher said.

The triple swap allowed all three donors to give their kidneys, and each of their intended recipients got a kidney from a matching donor at the same time.

“This makes it so everybody wins,” said Michelle Roberts, director of the Transplant Center at Scripps Green Hospital. Roberts, who has worked as an intensive care nurse for 13 years, has watched patients waiting for this chance.

“Some don’t get it on time and it breaks your heart — that’s why I’m excited about this — now everyone can celebrate,” she said.

The 38-year-old stepdaughter ended up donating her kidney to the 22-year-old college student. The 44-year-old husband donated to Fleming, 69, and the 53-year-old altruistic donor gave a kidney to the 46-year-old wife of Fleming’s donor.

“When you have multiple pairs of patients, the question is how to rearrange the puzzle so each of the donors could have a kidney given to the recipient they wanted to donate to,” Fisher said.

The donors and recipients were from the San Diego area, Riverside and Nevada. The donors and recipients remained anonymous in the hospital and had code names from Disney movies.

“The altruistic donor untied the knot to bring three people transplants,” Fisher said.

The triple swap was months in planning and involved 75 staff members from different areas of the hospital, such as radiology, admitting and the blood bank.

“We had to make it seamless,” Roberts said.

Two sets of surgeries took place on Dec. 15, and the last pair the next day. The donors and recipients had not met one another and were paired up in operating rooms across from one another connected by a hallway. The doctor carried the kidney between operating rooms from the donor to the recipient.

“I know the donors are anonymous, but wherever they are, I want to thank them,” Fleming said.

“It’s a Christmas miracle — that’s what it is.”