Celebrating – Donor chain changes eight lives

In honor of her birthday one kidney donor recently celebrated the gift of life that resulted in a chain of eight IU Health patients.

By IU Health Senior Journalist, T.J. Banes tfender1@iuhealth.org

The way Bill Eiler remembers it he was watching an episode of the popular ABC-TV series Grey’s Anatomy when he had an “a-ha moment.” The episode was about living donors.

“I like doing nice things to help people,” said Eiler, a resident of St. Paul, Ind. So he decided to donate a kidney – not to anyone in particular. Eiler is known as an “altruistic donor,” someone who donates to a transplant waiting list. Some people also call him a “Good Samaritan.”

Donate Life reports there are 100,000 people in the United States awaiting a kidney transplant. The average wait time is three to five years. Kidneys from living donors offer an alternative to dialysis for patients living with renal failure. On average a living kidney can function for 12 to 20 years – sometimes longer. In August, IU Health surgeons performed 18 adult kidney transplants and one pediatric transplant. The kidney transplant program performs more than 200 kidney transplants a year making it one of the top programs in the country.

When Eiler reached out to donate his kidney he said he wasn’t sure he would be a viable donor. Throughout his life he had been treated for polio, hepatitis, and melanoma. It turns out his kidneys remained healthy and he became the first in a group of eight people – one of IU Health’s first organ transplant chains.

Eiler’s kidney went to a woman. That woman’s son became donor number two. His kidney went to a second recipient. That recipient’s husband became donor number three. His kidney went to another man. That man’s niece, Jessica Journey became donor number four. Her kidney went to a young man.

Recently, to commemorate her birthday, Journey hosted a 10-year celebration of the chain of life. Eiler was there to celebrate with her – the bookends of the chain.

Journey said she felt called to help her uncle but she knew she wasn’t a good match.

“I always had a feeling that there was something more. It just all made sense, when I was told about the possibility of a chain during a phone call with my coordinator at the hospital,” said Journey, who recently joined IU Health Foundation as the manager of donor relations.

Known as Kidney Paired Donation (KPD), the chain occurs when a recipient has a willing living donor who is incompatible (a poor match). Most recipients and donor pairs are entered into a KPD program because of blood type or Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) incompatibility or both. Other pairs may enter if they are seeking a donor better matched in age, size or some medically suggested reason.

So on Sept. 22, 2009 Eiler became the first donor in the chain.

Retired from the US Postal Service Eiler spends his time volunteering with CASA, the Kiwanis Club, and teaching archery and fishing to youth attending Flat Rock YMCA Camp. He’s also seen on stage with the Shelby County Players.

“I was the only one in the chain who didn’t have anyone I was related to,” said Eiler, whose transplant coordinator was Kelly Coffey. “I know some people probably thought I was crazy, but it was really no big deal. If I had another kidney, I’d do it all again.” His eyes water when he tells about his recipient’s response to his gift of life.

“She said ‘thank you for giving me my life back.’” That was all it took to know I’d made the right decision,” said Eiler.

Journey’s transplant recipient was 15 at the time and is now 25. “We keep in touch. We appreciate each other,” said Journey. “It’s different than any other connection because it’s our shared kidney story that connects us.