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Man donates kidney at 84, becomes oldest living donor

There is a common misconception older people can't be donors, but that's not true, doctors say.
/ Source: TODAY

Frank Dewhurst knew his neighbor was in desperate need for a kidney.

They’d lived in the same townhouse community for 20 years and he kept seeing Linda Nall’s signs pleading for a donor — first placed in the back window of a car, then recently in her front yard. She was looking for someone with type O blood, and he was a match.

“I was walking in the neighborhood one day and I just said, why not me?” Dewhurst, 84, who lives in Austin, Texas, told TODAY.

“I just called her up and said, ‘I’d like to come up and visit with you’… she thought I was coming up there because I’m very involved in our community and I was coming to ask her to take down the sign. But in fact, I was offering my kidney.”

“When he told me he wanted to give me his kidney, I was shocked,” Nall, 72, said in a statement. She’d been struggling with lupus, an autoimmune disease that attacked her kidneys in 2001. They were failing and her situation was becoming ever more dire.

Frank Dewhurst lives six houses down from Linda Nall. When he saw a sign in her front yard pleading for a kidney donor, he offered to donate one of his.
Frank Dewhurst lives six houses down from Linda Nall. When he saw a sign in her front yard pleading for a kidney donor, he offered to donate one of his.Courtesy Houston Methodist Hospital.

Dewhurst read that people can live normal lives with only one kidney and when he discussed his plan with his wife, she was “in full agreement,” he recalled.

The big question was: Could he donate at age 84? He didn’t know, but he submitted his application in October. Last month, Dewhurst became the nation’s oldest living kidney donor after a successful transplant surgery.

Dr. Hassan Ibrahim, chief of kidney diseases at Houston Methodist Hospital, remembers thinking that if Dewhurst was one of the 30% of people whose kidney function didn’t change with age, he would be perfect.

He was also excited that the intended recipient was an older person. Doctors wouldn’t want to put an almost 85-year-old kidney into a 20-year-old because if that person lived to be 80, the kidney would be 145 years old.

So an older person donating to an older person was ideal.

“Certainly with the organ shortage, people are exploring new ways of expanding the pool of live donation and I think this is one of them,” Ibrahim said.

More than 101,000 people who need a kidney are on the waiting list for a lifesaving transplant, but only 17,000 receive one each year, according to The National Kidney Foundation. Every day, 12 people die waiting for a kidney.

If more older adults donated, fewer people would stay on the list, Ibrahim said. The average age of kidney donors in the U.S. is 39, and there’s a misconception older people can’t donate, he added, urging patients who need a donor to let doctors decide who could be a suitable candidate rather than ruling out someone because of age.

About 200 Americans over 70 have become living kidney donors since 1995, Ibrahim noted: “If everything checks out, there is no reason to keep them from saving someone’s life.”

Dewhurst had to meet the same acceptance criteria used for a 20-year-old donor — including undergoing an extensive physical exam, a kidney function test, cancer screening and a mental health evaluation — plus pass additional tests to make sure his heart would tolerate the surgery.

At each stage, doctors were impressed.

“He’s in incredibly good shape,” Ibrahim said.

Dewhurst, who worked at IBM for 30 years, credits a good diet and regular exercise for his good health at 84. His wife is allergic to beef so they stopped eating it 28 years ago and enjoy lots of fish, vegetables and fruits, and dark chocolate.

They exercise every morning and try to walk 8,000-10,000 steps a day. He’s been a blood donor for more than 60 years.

The transplant surgery took place at Houston Methodist Hospital on April 30.

A month later, Nall’s new kidney “is working beautifully” and she no longer needs dialysis, Ibrahim said. “It’s an incredible thing he has done for me and I am so grateful,” Nall noted.

Dewhurst is feeling well and is back to his usual routine after a few of days of discomfort after the surgery. In fact, he walked more than 10,000 steps the day before speaking with TODAY. He’s proud his transplanted kidney “kicked in immediately” and is doing its job.

As for becoming the nation’s oldest living kidney donor — and likely one of the oldest in the world — he took it in stride.

“The doctors seem to think it’s a big deal… but it’s just a number,” he said. “If it can get more people over 60 to donate their kidneys, it would be a great thing.”