They're not related by blood, but the seven women who work at Loyola Hospital in Maywood have a special bond: They have each donated one of their kidneys to a stranger or acquaintance as part of Loyola's Living Donor Kidney Transplant program's "Pay it Forward" program. Loyola calls them the "Seven Sisters."
Wednesday morning the hospital introduced the seven women as two major organ donation agencies agreed they have never seen such a concentration of "Good Samaritan donations." Their acts of donating living kidneys to waiting patients on the National Kidney Register have resulted in a chain of 28 people getting new kidneys -- ending their reliance on dialysis.
"These ladies remind us that human compassion is quite powerful," said Dr. Paul Kuo, chair of Loyola's surgery department.
River Forest's Dr. Susan Hou, 65, is a director of Loyola's Renal Transplant Program. She said that she made the decision to donate a kidney in 1972 when one of her fellow medical students suffered a kidney failure. "It took awhile" for the actual donation to take place, she said. Huo, a kidney transplant doctor herself, donated a kidney to Hermelinda Guttierez, one of her own patients.
The Pay it Forward program was started because of a rise of "altruistic kidney donation" said Dr. John Milner, head of the Living Donor Program. Milner said 85,000 patients nationally are waiting for a kidney and when hospitals work "in collaboration instead of competition" kidneys can be sent "outside hospital walls" to other patients, freeing up family members to donate to people with better genetic matches. "Six donations unlock other donations on the deceased-donor list, moving people up the list." Two-hundred-and-fifty U.S. hospitals now form a loose network of kidney donors, he said.
The six other sisters are: Christina Lamb, 46, of Melrose Park who donated to a 22-year-old Rockford man; Barbara Thomas, 48, of Brookfield, who donated a kidney to a tenant; Jodi Tamen, 47, of West Frankfurt, whose kidney was flown to a patient in California; Dorothy Jambrosek, 46, of Woodridge who donated to a 36-year -old Chicago area resident she had never met; Jane Thomas, 47, of Villa Park, who donated to a 38 year-old man from Bellwood and Cynthia Blakemore, 58, whose donation to a man in New York permitted another transplant for a patient with "an extraordinarily difficult match" said Dr. Milner.
For "sister" Barbara Thomas, 48, who lives in Brookfield, and now works as an administrative secretary at Loyola, the decision came during a chance conversation with her tenant's wife. "She told me that her husband needed a new kidney," said Thomas. "My son plays with his son." Thomas said her faith played a role in her decision, "Absolutely. My faith plays a role in every decision I make."
James Love, 34, now of Westchester, thought he would wait for years for a transplant. "Dialysis drains your strength and energy. You don't feel like doing much." Love's kidneys failed because of complications from sickle cell anemia. Thomas donated her kidney to Love on October 22, 2009. "I thank God every day for the chance to go out and toss a ball with my son, or sit and talk with my daughter," he said in a video. "That stuff is priceless and she gave it all back to me."
A very healthy-looking Jane Thomas surprised the audience by saying that she had just completed her donor surgery eight weeks earlier. "I'm back to normal, exercising on a full regime, with weight lifting, cardio, everything after eight weeks." Other "sisters" said their families had thought they were "crazy".
"We are ordinary people," said Jambrosek, "But because of us, twenty-eight dialysis-dependent people's lives have been changed. We hope that [our example] is a call to action. We believe there are others like us who can make a difference." She said she hoped her story would inspire others to consider altruistic donation. "In the words of [River Forest's] Dr. Susan Hou, "God gave us two kidneys, so we can give one away."