Vertis Boyce is a 70-year-old African-American woman. But her new kidney used to belong to a 24-year-old Hispanic man.
And before that, it belonged to a 17-year-old white girl.
Boyce’s organ’s journey, and her new lease on life, are the result of a rare procedure in which people receive previously transplanted kidneys – surgery that doctors say could save hundreds of lives a year in the US alone.
“If someone dies after a transplant and the kidney is still functioning, there is no reason why we should discard the kidney,” said Dr. Jeffery Veale, who performed the procedure. “This was a teenage kidney – it probably has many years left.”
Veale is director of the UCLA Kidney Exchange Program in Los Angeles. He and his team have done this procedure three times in the last year, and they believe it could help address the severe shortage of viable kidneys available for transplants.
According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), more than 95,000 Americans are on the kidney transplant waiting list. The wait for a deceased donor could be five years, and in some states, it is closer to 10 years.
Each year in the US, less than 20% patients on the UNOS wait list will receive a transplant, and 13 people on the list die each day. If transplanting healthy kidneys a second time became standard practice, it would open up a new pool of donors.
“In the last 60 years there have been less than 50 cases of kidneys being re-transplanted. This is because the common practice is that once a kidney is transplanted, you don’t re-transplant it,” Veale told CNN.
He said about 25% of patients who receive a donated kidney die while their kidney is still functional. The “re-gifting” process could give hope to those patients on the waiting list who otherwise may not be considered for a transplant, Veale said.
“As long as the reason of death didn’t damage the kidney, why not maximize the life of said kidney?”
Veale doesn’t know how many times a kidney can be successfully re-transplanted. But he said that as of today all of his patients are recuperating well, and off dialysis, with functioning kidneys.
After being on dialysis for nearly 10 years, Boyce was losing hope that she would live long enough to see her granddaughter grow up. But now the Las Vegas woman’s outlook is better, thanks to the family of Beto Maldonado.
Maldonado suffered from kidney disease for most of his life and received a kidney transplant in 2015. But he died in a car accident two years later. After his death, Maldonado’s family agreed to donate the still-working organ.
Veale transplanted the kidney in Boyce in July 2017.
“I feel free and excited. I have a 6-year-old granddaughter and a year ago I thought I was probably not going to see her grow up,” Boyce told CNN. “Now there is a chance I will.”
On March 5, when Boyce met Maldonado’s mother, Eva, and sister, Linda, the three women exchanged hugs. According to UCLA Health, Eva held her hand over Boyce’s abdomen and let it linger there, tears in her eyes.
“Mi hijo,” Eva said softly — “my son” in Spanish.
As for Boyce, she is overwhelmed with gratitude for her hand-me-down kidney. She also believes it’s symbolically important that the kidney came from a white teenager, then went to a Hispanic man, and now belongs to a black woman in her 70s.
“This just shows how we’re all the same regardless of race or gender,” Boyce told CNN. “There are no color lines when it comes to donating organs. For me, all kidneys are pink.”