10-person kidney transplant chain celebrated at KU Hospital as donors, recipients meet

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- It's been called the greatest gift a person can give.

Ten people -- five kidney donors and five recipients -- gathered Friday at the University of Kansas Health System. It was the first time generous donors and appreciative recipients had met face-to-face.

When it comes to organ transplants, matches aren't always obvious. On Friday, the donors and recipients met at the hospital where their surgeries were performed in January. As the ceremony began, donors sat alongside their immediate family members, but then Sean Kumer, a transplant specialist with the medical center, asked the donors to stand and move to sit immediately behind their kidney recipients.

The musical chairs routine staged by Kumer was meant to illustrate how transplant matches sometimes happen outside family lines. The doctor mentioned the odds of finding kidney transplant matches outside a recipient's immediate family are 1 in 32,000. The hospital believes it to be the longest active donor chain in the Kansas City metro.

Fairway's Craig Nelson was part of Friday's ceremony. In January, Nelson donated one of his two kidneys to Tony Zins, a friend who was on dialysis treatments. His generosity helped jump start the chain that, over a short period of time, involved 10 people.

"I felt like I was in the same boat," Nelson said, a short time after seeing donors and recipients embrace. "Watching them find their matches for the first time about an hour or two ago. Tears to my eyes. I'm glad I didn't have to speak then because it would have been hard."

However, another would-be kidney donor also matched Zins' needs. Leawood's Jon Sink, who wanted to help someone in need of a kidney, remained on the donor list until he was matched with Shawn Dawes, a dialysis patient from Manhattan, Kansas.

"It really was a no-brainer," Sink told the audience in the hospital's broadcast studio. "It's great to put a face with who I've been curious about for the last two to three months. It's great to meet his family. Hopefully, this can start a relationship ongoing."

"I used to always be cold, and now I'm not," Dawes said. "It's just little things. Even appetite. Being on dialysis and being in kidney failure, you're so restricted on diet and to be able to eat what I want again. It's just crazy."

The University of Kansas Health System said its surgeons and transplant specialists have now performed 2,500 kidney transplants. Two people involved in the 10-person chain asked to remain anonymous and didn't attend Friday's gathering.

Kumer was involved in all five surgeries and said a transplant from a living donor can extend a person's life by as much as 18 years.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled a Sean Kumer's name. FOX4 apologizes for the error.