- The Washington Times - Monday, December 24, 2007

For three years, Connie McGhee has been too tired to play her beloved game of golf, but she’s finally feeling stronger and looking forward to getting back on the course this spring.

The story of her transformation began with the click of a mouse, an online profile and a phone call. At the center of it all is a Web site that matches people who want to donate an organ with sick people in need of organs.

Mrs. McGhee, who lives in Denver and has struggled with diabetes since childhood, needed a new kidney badly, and Matchingdonors.com allowed her to create an online profile that was viewed by Nicole Hruska, a stranger who lives in Iowa and ended up donating one of her own kidneys. The Nov. 13 transplant surgery at Johns Hopkins Comprehensive Transplant Center in Maryland was a success. Though Mrs. McGhee was recently back in the hospital to deal with a few complications, the prognosis is good, she said.

“I feel like my old self,” said Mrs. McGhee, 53. “Physically, I feel really, really good.”

“I would definitely say it’s a positive experience,” said Mrs. Hruska, a 46-year-old legal secretary who first thought of donating an organ after viewing a news report that mentioned the Matchingdonors.com Web site.

The idea for that Web site began in 2004, when Paul Dooley, a Boston native who owns a employer-employee-matching Web site, pitched the idea to his physician, Dr. Jeremiah Lowney.

The site now has 4,526 potential donors registered and 262 patients waiting, and has produced 64 successful transplant surgeries over the past few years, generating attention from national newspapers and TV networks.

“It’s spectacular,” said Mr. Dooley. “Every one of our transplants has worked out.”

The majority of cases on MatchingDonors involve kidney transplants, Mr. Dooley said, though other body tissue can be donated, including lung tissue and bone marrow.

A patient pays a lifetime fee of $595 or a monthly fee of $25 to join Matchingdonors.com, though Mr. Dooley said he also works with those who don’t have money.

The patient sets up a profile that’s viewed by potential donors. Would-be donors can initiate contact with patients, but not vice versa, Mr. Dooley said. Once two people have decided to proceed, the patient’s doctor or transplant center tests each person’s blood to see if they’re an initial match, he said, and if they are, the transplant center takes over, performing several more tests before surgery can occur.

“Our role is to get people talking, to get people together,” Dr. Lowney said. “We want transplant centers to know that we’re not trying to overstep our boundaries as far as selecting people for surgery. We just want to get people talking.”

The transplant need is real. As of yesterday, 98,194 persons in the U.S. were awaiting new organs, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), a nonprofit membership organization that operates the nation’s transplant system under contract with the federal government. The organization works with lists of patients across the country who are waiting for deceased-donor transplants.

For Mrs. McGhee, who has had Type 1 diabetes since age four, the match didn’t exactly come easily. She’d already had a dual kidney and pancreas transplant from a deceased donor when she was in her 30s, but about seven years ago, her doctor told her to put her name on the UNOS waiting list because she’d need another new kidney soon. She followed that advice, but eventually also joined Matchingdonors.com, and she’s glad she did.

“I never would have got my kidney if it weren’t for them,” she said.

Not everyone is thrilled with the idea of matching up donors and patients through Web sites though, and some critics point out problems.

For instance, a living donor could choose a patient from a Web site based on criteria that are discriminatory, placing other patients at a disadvantage, Dr. Douglas W. Hanto, chief of transplantation at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, wrote in the March issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

He also said that well-educated, wealthier or communications-savvy patients might be more likely to solicit a donation than patients without such traits. He argued that only a donation to the top person on a waiting list is permissible, and that UNOS is “best-positioned” to regulate living-organ donation.

Mrs. McGhee waited for three years to find a match on Matchingdonors.com, and had several near-match disappointments. Meanwhile, Mrs. Hruska said she had to overcome a fear of needles but eventually decided to donate, mainly because of where she was in life — married with no children and in good health — and out of a desire to help others. Eventually, she found Mrs. McGhee, who reminded her of a close cousin. She made a phone call and set the events in motion.

The two women matched on most points, but there were a few hiccups along the way, so their surgery was performed through the Johns Hopkins Incompatible Kidney Transplantation Program.

The two women are now good friends, which often happens after a transplant, Mr. Dooley said.

“I really feel that we’ve got a good friendship going,” Mrs. Hruska said, describing Mrs. McGhee as a “bubbly, vivacious” person who “always comes through with a positive attitude,” despite her struggles.

Mr. Dooley said there are many different reasons why people want to donate their organs.

For Mrs. McGhee, though, it’s a decision that changed her future.

“It really is the gift of life,” she said. “And it’s amazing there are so many people out there that want to do that.”

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