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Andrea Pierson

Living kidney donation kicks off chain of giving

When Andrea Pierson signed up as a kidney donor, she could not have imagined her gift would result in the donation of seven life-saving kidneys.

Pierson, who lives in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., contacted Vanderbilt University Medical Center to request a testing kit, hoping she was a match for a friend’s relative.

She was not. But Transplant Center coordinators asked if she was interested in being placed on a national registry for kidney donors. Pierson’s decision to be listed affected lives in Georgia, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, Mexico and the Philippines.

“It has been amazing,” said Pierson. “When I started this process, I thought I was just going to try to donate to my friend’s cousin, but then I ended up helping someone I don’t even know. My giving to that person allowed their intended donor to give to another recipient and it just kept going.

“It made my day to hear the impact my one donation has had. My heart is just overflowing. I know that people’s lives have improved and been impacted, but I am the one who feels blessed.”

When a willing donor is incompatible with their intended recipient

Pierson’s “altruistic donation” – made to a stranger, not directly to a family member or friend -- was a part of what is called a paired exchange. It resulted in a domino effect, a kidney donor chain.

This is beyond what I could have ever fathomed.

Essentially, Pierson started a chain that allowed transplants for many recipient-donor pairs.

Such a “chain” donation is started by a donor who is not a match with the person they were originally tested for. That donor can consent to be part of a chain. The organ donation network searches for other people with incompatible donors. If the original donor wanted to give to a specific person, the goal is to help that person receive a kidney from another donor in the chain. The donors’ kidneys are not transplanted into their own loved ones, but instead into the ailing person in another donor-recipient pair in the chain.

It's difficult, but transplant teams can create larger groups of pairs to benefit more people in need of a new kidney.

The longest chain in Vanderbilt’s program

The kidney donation chain that Pierson made possible is Vanderbilt’s longest so far. Vanderbilt typically participates in three paired exchanges, or chains, each year.

Vanderbilt sees an increasing number of people willing to donate a kidney to benefit a stranger, in these chains of donations. Pierson says donating a kidney was a remarkable experience.

 “This has been a life-changing experience for me,” said Pierson. “It is a wonderful feeling being able to help another human being. This is beyond what I could have ever fathomed.

Living Kidney Donor Transplant