Anonymous kidney donation is on the rise, fueled by compassion
Aimee Bultemeier of Lee’s Summit, a nursing assistant at the Mid America Heart Institute, not only wears a Donate Life bracelet, but already has donated one of her kidneys to someone she never met. Aimee Bultemeier of Lee’s Summit, a nursing assistant at the Mid America Heart Institute, not only wears a Donate Life bracelet, but already has donated one of her kidneys to someone she never met. (Fred Blocher, McClatchy-Tribune)
•Living Kidney DonorsFind More Information About How to Be a Hero & Save a Life at UW. UWHealth.org/LivingDonor
By James A. Fussell, The Kansas City Star 6:36 p.m. CDT, May 29, 2013
The idea kept nagging at Aimee Bultemeier.
“I have two perfectly good kidneys, and I only need one,” the 37-year-old nursing assistant thought. “I could save somebody’s life.”
Here’s the thing: She had no idea who that somebody was.
It wasn’t a friend or family member. Just another human being who was waiting for a chance at a new life.
For Bultemeier, that was enough. The single mother of two called the Midwest Transplant Network in Westwood, Kan., and volunteered to have major surgery to save the life of a stranger.
She is one of a growing number of anonymous kidney donors nationwide. Such altruistic, nondirected organ donations have grown in recent years, experts say, thanks to the Internet, emotional videos on YouTube and the reach of social media.
In 2011, the latest year complete statistics are available, there were 159 anonymous kidney donors in the United States.
“This was unheard of until the late ’90s,” said Anne Paschke, a spokeswoman for the United Network for Organ Sharing in Richmond, Va. “The first ones we recorded were in 1998. And if you go back a dozen years, there were only 30.”
The Midwest Transplant Network also has seen more interest in such donations.
“We’ve seen a steady increase in calls each year,” said Catherine Nash, the network’s family services coordinator. “We probably get 30 to 40 people a year calling with questions. Of those, about 20 follow through. Then, on average, two of those (donate).
“But 100 percent of our callers are coming from an altruistic standpoint. They want to help. They’ve seen the statistics about people dying waiting for a kidney.”
While people are born with two kidneys, organs that make urine and filter waste from the blood, they can function normally with just one.
“We think about greed and narcissism and all the shootings,” psychologist Bruce Manley said. “But we forget that there is still a very large number of people who are doing good and decent things for other human beings. This is just an example of that. Then if we look at the role that social media plays, we can start to see why this is happening at this moment.”
Psychologist Renee Dietchman has another theory.
“Typically when times are tough, such as in the Great Depression, people want to help,” she said. “If they can’t help financially, maybe they help out by giving more of themselves.”
Bultemeier works on the transplant floor at the Mid-America Heart Institute at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., and is familiar with such cases.
“In 2010, I became close to two guys waiting for heart transplants,” she said. “They were both single parents and both close to my age. It just really touched me; more or less broke my heart. I mean, that could be any of us.
“I just couldn’t imagine being young and single and a parent and needing an organ to live, you know? And so pretty much that’s when it just was clear as day to me.”
Before making her final decision, she did a lot of praying and Internet research. Then she told her mother, Kathy Hood, who worried.
After all, Bultemeier’s former husband, the father of their daughter, Lexi, had died of a brain aneurysm.
“I worried that Aimee might be the only match for her if she ever needed (a kidney),” Hood said. “She said, ‘Mom, the chances of that happening are so slim, and I could help save a life now!'”
Also, there is no guarantee a parent will be a match for a child.
After Bultemeier contacted the Midwest Transplant Network in September 2010, it took nine months of interviews, medical tests, mental health screenings, background checks and in-person interviews to make sure she was a good candidate.
Nash said donors must not only undergo multiple screenings, they also must realize that they’re purposely putting their body at risk to help another person.
Bultemeier passed on all counts.
“She is just so amazing and so positive,” Nash said. “Her wanting to donate reflects how she lives her life.”
The hospital where Bultemeier works gave her eight weeks of paid time off to donate and recover.
“My boss was amazing and supportive,” she said. “I wish more businesses would do that.”
A year and a half after donating, Bultemeier doesn’t know much about the person who received her kidney.
“A few months after I donated, about October of 2011, I received a card from my recipient,” she said. “It was very short and sweet. I know it’s a guy. He said he was eternally grateful and he is doing great, and he hopes to meet me one day and get to know me.”
She wants to meet him and to hear his story. She imagines she might have helped save someone with a wife and children.
“It’s hard,” she said in a quavering voice. “I knew going in that I might never meet my recipient. And that’s OK.”
The need is great
Nationally about 95,000 people are waiting for a kidney, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. On average, 13 a day die, according to the National Kidney Foundation. More than 400,000 people in the U.S. are on dialysis.
For more information on kidney disease and organ donation, visit the National Kidney Foundation website at kidney.org.