Westborough man donates kidney to set off 8-person chain of transplants

Scott O'Connell

Forget about giving you the shirt off his back - Edward Behn doesn't mind parting with a kidney.

That is, he wouldn't if the Westborough resident hadn't already donated one earlier this month, kicking off a chain of kidney "swaps" that affected the lives of eight people. The transplants, performed by doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center on Nov. 2 and 3, provided healthy, functioning kidneys to recipients ranging from a 10-year-old Maryland boy to a 74-year-old Virginia man.

The only person who came out of the chain a kidney short was Behn, who said he decided to donate an organ simply because it was "something good to do."

Not that Behn, 59, stumbled into his decision. His good friend passed away from renal failure a year ago, and his sister-in-law works in a hospital dialysis unit.

"I've seen some of the life-limiting aspects of living on dialysis," he said. "I was hoping to help at least one person avoid that."

So Behn began looking for a transplant program, eventually coming across Maryland's renowned program. He contacted the medical center in December 2008 and came away impressed with its system, which he called "very well done, and something I felt comfortable with."

Behn told doctors he wanted to be an indirect, or anonymous donor - "Whoever you deem to be most in need, please, just give it to them," he said to them.

"All donors are altruistic," said Matthew Cooper, M.D., director of kidney transplantation at the Maryland Medical Center. "But non-direct donation is pretty rare. Most people wouldn't conceptualize the idea of going to an emergency room and giving a life-saving organ to someone else."

Indirect donation also presents a challenge to medical professionals, who must determine the ethical and psychological makeup of the donor before authorizing the procedure (donating a kidney for money is illegal in the U.S., for example). After Behn passed his tests in Maryland, however, the pre-operation period turned into a process of making sure the medical center "could utilize his gift to the best of our abilities," Cooper said.

During that time, the medical staff at Maryland began piecing together what would become the eight-person chain of donors and recipients - a significant undertaking, Cooper said.

"We believe it is the biggest chain at a single institution," he said.

Kidney swaps such as the one Behn started allow donors to give a kidney even if their intended recipient does not have matching blood and tissue types. They are paired with other donors and recipients in the chain who are incompatible with each other but are matches with others in the group.

In the Maryland swap, two of the donors were female while the other two as well as all of the recipients were male. They hailed from Massachusetts, Maryland, Virginia and Florida.

The transplant operations took place over two days in four operating rooms at the medical center.

Behn, who had undergone two surgical procedures in the past, said going into an operation was nonetheless "a fairly intimidating process."

"There's risk with any kind of surgery," he said. "But I had full faith and confidence in the medical team."

Maryland is also one of the leading medical centers in the country performing laparoscopic surgeries, a procedure in which the kidney is removed through an incision in the navel. While no more or less safe than a regular operation, Cooper said the laparoscopic surgery is minimally invasive and leaves a much smaller scar.

"It's just not that much trauma to the body," Behn said. "Although, as a 59-year-old man, the aesthetic benefit doesn't matter as much."

Behn needed just two days in the hospital to recuperate from the operation, and said he "felt great" afterward.

"I came out with a little piece of gauze and a Band-Aid," he said. "Nothing more than you'd get after donating blood."

The Sunday following the operation, Behn was already home and taking part in an eight-hour informational meeting with the Boy Scouts in Framingham (he is involved with local Troop 100).

"Just the fact that I'm back and able to be on my feet for eight hours - that was wonderful," he said.

Behn was back in Maryland the next Tuesday, Nov. 10, for a checkup and group meeting of the donors and recipients in the chain.

"Everybody looked great," he said. "It was quite emotional, needless to say."

Behn never met his recipient, however, who wished to remain anonymous. He does know the man is in his 20s and lives in Maryland. Though Behn said he would be open to meeting him, he was also satisfied just knowing those minor details.

"I have three sons of my own in their 20s," he said. "So I can make a connection that way. If one of my sons needed a transplant, I hope somebody would do the same thing.

"What's important is that he's healthy."

For that reason, Behn said the experience was more than worthwhile.

"(I'd do it again) in a heartbeat," he said. "I have absolutely not one regret at all."

Behn also hoped his story would inspire others to consider becoming living donors, whose kidneys have a much higher success rate in recipients than organs received from a deceased donor.

"You don't have to be anybody special to do it," he said.

Cooper, however, slightly disagrees.

"(Behn) deserves to be considered a hero," he said.

The MetroWest Daily News