"Altruistic" Kidney Donors

Jim Sollisch from Cleveland Heights, OH, donated a kidney to his co-worker, Joanne Kim.
Jim Sollisch from Cleveland Heights, OH, donated a kidney to his co-worker, Joanne Kim.

KIM: (speaking to her dogs) Hi babies, want to say hi? Oh no, what did we get into?

Joanne Kim scolds her dog Bobo, for sneaking popcorn from her desk drawer.

KIM: Oh my god, Bobo.

SOLLISCH: Wait, why you blaming Bobo?

That person in the background--sticking up for Bobo--that's Jim Sollisch.

Sollisch works with Kim at the Cleveland-based marketing firm Marcus Thomas.

But they share more than an office and a love of dogs.

They share an organ.

Sollisch donated one of his kidneys to Kim, about a year ago.

He's not family; he's not her best friend; he's a co-worker.

Now to be clear: Kim didn't solicit the donation or even talk about her health problems at work, until it got to the point where she needed to back off.

Kim has IgA nephropathy, a progressive disease that causes kidney failure.

Last year, her kidney function was down to seven percent.

She needed a transplant.

FATICA: The number of people on the wait list for kidney transplantation is currently over 90,000.

Dr. Richard Fatica, a nephrologist at the Cleveland Clinic, says the kidney is in short supply relative to the need.

That’s likely to get worse with more Americans developing diabetes which can severely damage kidneys.

The wait time for a kidney from a cadaver can be as much as four years.

That’s why those in need often turn to a living donor willing to give up one of their kidneys.

Kim started by asking her family, as most people do, but none were suitable.

KIM: We were so sure that my niece was going to be the match, so then when she didn't pass, it was kind of devastating, really.

With her kidney function declining, her energy plummeting, dialysis was the next step--a time-consuming and inferior way to filter blood.

But then Sollisch popped his head into her office and offered to donate one of his kidneys.

KIM: I said, "Really?" I actually tried to talk him out of it. I said it's a huge commitment…

People without a special bond to the transplant recipient are required at the Clinic to do not only a full physical assessment, but also a bioethics consult, a psych consult, and have a visit from a social worker.

The would-be donors are told the risks are real.

Again, the Clinic's Fatica:

FATICA: They have to understand this is still major surgery and although the risks are low, they will be hospitalized for a few days and then have a recovery period of anywhere from 2-4 weeks.

Fatica says long-term health risks from living with one kidney are very low.

Others in the field say that appears to be true but we need more data to better understand long-term health outcomes.

Dr. Lainie Friedman Ross is a bioethicist at the University of Chicago.

ROSS: We actually have not followed our living donors so we really don’t know the full extent of their risks.

Some donors have also run into problems getting health insurance after the surgery.

The new healthcare law should fix this; it prohibits an insurer from rejecting someone based on pre-existing conditions.

Life insurance might still be problematic.

In any case, the trend of what Dr. Faticia calls “altruistic” donors is rising.

FATICA: We are seeing quite often now that co-workers or friends or acquaintances from other social situations are also being considered as donors.

A year after the surgery Jim Sollisch is doing fine and so is Joanne Kim.

KIM: I do feel like it was a huge gift that I am going to take care of and cherish and make sure I do everything in my power to make the best use of it for as long as it lasts.

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