TODAY   |  November 24, 2010

32–person kidney swap sets record

Dr. Keith Melancon, along with patients and donors he operated on, discusses the largest kidney exchange in history — a true tale of giving this holiday season.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

AL ROKER reporting: And now to the people behind the largest kidney exchange ever, 16 patients thankful to be alive and thankful for their 16 donors, including a soldier and an NBC News viewer. We're going to talk to them in just a moment, but first, NBC 's Tom Costello has their story.

TOM COSTELLO reporting: What does it take for someone to give a kidney to a total stranger? After two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan , Army Specialist Patrick Duncan had seen enough, enough suffering, enough death.

Specialist PATRICK DUNCAN: I've seen death up close and personal and now it's time for a change , now that I can actually save someone's life, it just means so much.

COSTELLO: For Patricia Harris , it's a trade, she'll donate and someone else 's kidney will help save her son.

Ms. PATRICIA HARRIS: I will move heaven and earth for my son, but more than that, I can improve the quality of life for someone else . That's what God wants us to do.

COSTELLO: Jonathan was just 12 when his sole kidney started to fail, then open- heart surgery and chronic asthma, now at 22, the kidney his brother gave him has also failed.

Mr. JONATHAN HARRIS: I guess that just means I was put on this earth for bigger things, better things.

COSTELLO: After 25 years of kidney disease , Rhonda Carey is also hoping for better things.

Ms. RHONDA CAREY: I'm praying that this will be the only transplant that I ever have to have.

COSTELLO: Patrick , Patricia , Jonathan and Rhonda are part of the largest kidney transplant chain ever performed in the US, 16 donors and 16 recipients and a complicated web of antibodies, compatibility, relatives and complete strangers.

Dr. KEITH MELANCON (Georgetown University Hospital): What I try to do every day is try to find more kidneys for my patients.

COSTELLO: Dr. Keith Melancon is the kidney transplant director at Georgetown . Thirty-two surgeries over two weeks with kidneys shuttled between

three DC hospitals: Georgetown , Walter Reed and Washington Hospital Center . Washington has the longest kidney transplant waiting list in the country.

Dr. MELANCON: Only approximately a fourth of the people that sit on the transplant list will ever be transplanted, so you have to get a living donor for the rest of these patients if they're ever going to get a transplant.

COSTELLO: Living donors are important because nationwide there simply aren't enough kidneys available from deceased donors. Eighty-six thousand Americans are on the list waiting for a transplant, but every year only 16,000 Americans actually get one. That means every 17 minutes someone dies waiting for a kidney . Since all of us can live with just one kidney , relatives, friends, even strangers can donate.

Ms. CHRISTINE HALL: From watching television. Brian Williams did...

COSTELLO: Christine Hall stepped forward after watching our report on Dr. Melancon last year.

Ms. HALL: I remember thinking, 'Why don't more people do that?' And then I realized the question should be why don't I do that?

COSTELLO: Two weeks after their surgeries, donors and recipients were finally introduced. Patrick Harris 's kidney went to Rhonda Carey .

Ms. CAREY: And I thank you from the bottom of my heart .

COSTELLO: When Jonathan Harris met his donor, Pat Semple , he was overcome.

Mr. HARRIS: I thought a long time I had to do this alone, but I'm not.

Ms. PAT SEMPLE: Jonathan 's going to take good care of it. So -- and it gives him a whole new lease on life.

COSTELLO: And Jonathan 's mom, her kidney went to Keiron Kochhar .

Unidentified Woman: It's so nice of you to give my husband a life.

COSTELLO: So many lives, so much gratitude, that's what it means to give a kidney to a stranger. For TODAY, Tom Costello , NBC News, Washington .

ROKER: Dr. Keith Melancon is at Georgetown University Hospital along with all 16 pairs of transplant patients. Good morning to all of you.

Dr. MELANCON: Good morning.

All: Good morning.

ROKER: Good morning. Say, Dr. Keith , let me ask you, for -- as we heard, some people have just decided to do this out of the goodness of their heart; if somebody at home was thinking about this, what are the risks to the folks at home, the healthy folks who want to donate a kidney ?

Dr. MELANCON: Well, it is major surgery, so there's always the risk of bleeding or the risk of a surgical complication. But actually, the risks are very small. Most healthy people can donate without any risk that they would be a hospital more than one or two days, and they can pretty much return to normal activities within a month.

ROKER: Well, Specialist Duncan , you have served tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq , you know, why did you decide to do this?

Spc. DUNCAN: I decided to do this because I've lived a normal life , I've lived a healthy life, and for someone who can't have that life just because their kidney 's failing or because they're on dialysis, that I just -- it wasn't fair, so I decided to do what I had to do to give them a good life.

ROKER: And, Rhonda , you got the kidney donated by Specialist Duncan . You got a lot to be thankful for, you and your family, this Thanksgiving .

Ms. CAREY: Yes, I do. I'm very thankful and I thank God that I was able to be a part of this and I thank God that I got Patrick 's kidney .

ROKER: And, Patricia , you and your son Jonathan , you've been through a lot together, he had a failed kidney that would have been donated from his brother. What does it mean for you and Jonathan to have gotten this kidney for him?

Ms. HARRIS: Well, it definitely is going to increase the quality of his life, provide him opportunities to live a young man's life that without this procedure may not have occurred, come independent of each other.

ROKER: Yeah. I can see that bond is very special.

Ms. HARRIS: John -- yes.

ROKER: Christine Hall , you were -- you saw the report that Tom Costello did on "Nightly News With Brian Williams " and you were moved to act. And in a sense, this helped you improve your life as you got ready to donate a kidney .

Ms. HALL: It did.

ROKER: How so?

Ms. HALL: I think you're referring to my weight loss.

ROKER: Yeah.

Ms. HALL: Yeah. I lost 40 pounds getting ready for the surgery.

ROKER: Wow. So how -- knowing that you, as a bonus you're in better health and you've helped somebody, how does that make you feel?

Ms. HALL: Honored.

ROKER: Yeah. That's terrific. Dr. Melancon , you've done now 16 pairs, what's next, 20, 24, what are you thinking?

Dr. MELANCON: Well, Al , actually our national organization, the United Network of Organ Sharing , is now going to make this a national program. So what we're most proud of is the fact that more people across the nation will be able to participate in these sort of exchanges and be transplanted.

ROKER: Well, that's terrific. Happy Thanksgiving to everybody, please enjoy, and we're so proud of you. Thank you so much .