Physician Donated Kidney to Patient She Hadn't Met

Marcia Frellick

September 08, 2014

In the 4 months since nephrologist Rita McGill, MD, donated her kidney to a stranger, she has moved to Boston, Massachusetts, begun a research fellowship at Tufts Medical Center, and is working her way back to marathon-running shape.

Dr. McGill, 54, said any pain from the May 20 operation at Allegheny General Hospital (AGH) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was mitigated by an overwhelming happiness immediately after the surgery from knowing that an organ she could live without was giving a 33-year-old man a life he could never have expected.

Her decision was the culmination of a career-long desire to help 1 person end dialysis and to encourage others to do the same.

When she announced her decision, she asked only that the person be young enough to potentially enjoy at least 30 years with the kidney. Dr. McGill, who had run a marathon just a year before, knew her kidneys were healthy and would last much longer than cadaver kidneys.

Dr. Rita McGill, kidney donor

Source: Courtesy of Allegheny Health Network

She also said she wanted to honor the courage of those with kidney disease. "If my patients over the last 25 years could be this heroic, I can be heroic enough to get a laparoscopic nephrectomy," she told Medscape Medical News.

Dr. McGill, who had practiced at AGH for 18 years, said the reasons for not donating eventually gave way to the pluses. Her children were grown and her siblings were unlikely to need a kidney. She also couldn't get the numbers out of her head.

"A quarter of a million people are dialyzing and trying to contend with that. …If 1 in 3,000 people gave a kidney, this whole dialysis issue would be gone," she said.

Though she had been considering the move for many years, she remembered a moment "when it all made perfect sense." She was accepting a National Kidney Foundation award called "The Gift of Life" in March 2013. As she heard of the trials of those with kidney disease she could think of nothing but her own decision. Her remarks were written so she read them, but then forgot to take the award with her as she turned from the lectern. She knew what she had to do.

Patient Asks to Meet Her Days Before Surgery

Dan Case, 33, who lives with his parents in New Castle, Pennsylvania, had been on dialysis for 3.5 years. He was "ecstatic" when he got the call that a kidney match had been found.

He describes every dialysis day as "all-encompassing tired… like three days without sleep" and feeling sick on the off days.

Dan Case, transplant recipient

Five days before the surgery, he and Dr. McGill had preop appointments near the same time and he asked if he could meet her.

"She's just a really good-hearted human being," he said of the woman he now stays in touch with through Facebook.

Quickly after the transplant, he felt energy he barely remembered. "I was a kid again. In fact I don't know if when I was a kid I felt this good," he told Medscape Medical News.

He said he plans to return to school and study computer science, which he hopes leads to a job, something not within his hopes before the phone call.

He said he has some residual pain, but nothing compared to the discomfort he's experienced since age 24. Dr. McGill said there is a recovery process, but it shouldn't derail people from donating. She said she could get out of bed with assistance the evening of the surgery, and on the 4th day went home where she could climb stairs.

More than 100,000 Waiting for Kidneys

As of May, 100,602 people in the US were waiting for kidney transplants. Last year, 14,029 kidneys were donated, 9314 of them from deceased donors and 4715 from living donors, according to the National Kidney Foundation.

Colleagues said they weren’t surprised when they heard of Dr. McGill's intention.

Barbara Clark, MD, a nephrologist at AGH, had worked with Dr. McGill for 15 years.

"She was committed to improving the lives of kidney patients around the country and this was something she felt would fulfill her obligation to dialysis patients," Dr. Clark told Medscape Medical News.

She said she was moved by Dr. McGill's decision and it made her wonder if she could give a kidney to someone outside her family.

"I don't know that I could do that," she told Medscape Medical News. "I do think she's unique."

Dr. McGill recognizes that she had the financial freedom, the time while she was changing work paths, and broad insurance coverage that many considering donations don't.

When she speaks to a group of businesspeople next month, she wants to ask them to consider paid time off and guarantees that donors won't lose their jobs if they take time off.

She also says that she can now say with authority that patients on dialysis should ask healthy relatives to consider donating.

"They will be absolutely delighted if they can do something this wonderful for you," Dr. McGill says.

Doctor-to-Patient Donations Rare

Anne Paschke, spokesperson for the United Network for Organ Sharing, told Medscape Medical News that though the organization doesn't keep statistics on the professions of people donating to strangers, in her experience, a gift like Dr. McGill's is uncommon.

Richard Marcus, MD, director of the division of nephrology at Allegheny Health Network in Pittsburgh, agreed.

"It's not unprecedented, but it's extremely rare," he told Medscape Medical News.

He described Dr. McGill as a "super-giving person and very active in our local chapter of the National Kidney Foundation, and always giving of herself," so he wasn't surprised when she told him of her plans. "A huge gift, but not a surprise," he said.

He said Dr. McGill had talked with him about the decision for years before she told the staff.

"I think the only delay was because I was keeping her too busy at work," he said.

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