Dynamist Blog

Changing Kidney Donation Norms

People who oppose changing the law to permit financial compensation for kidney donors sometimes argue that introducing money might change the social norms that now encourage donation and actually reduce donations.

On Dec. 23, Ronald Herrick gave a kidney to his twin brother. On Dec. 27, he died — 56 years later.

Mr. Herrick, who was 79 when he died last month of heart ailments, was the world's first kidney donor. Despite the experimental nature of the surgery, he recovered fully. His remaining organ expanded to do the work of two.

Back in 1954, a kidney transplant was only conceivable between identical twins like the Herricks. Today, thanks to immunosuppressant drugs, donors and recipients require little more than compatible blood types. With laparoscopic techniques, the largest incision required is just a couple of inches long, allowing a hospital stay of only two or three days.

But cultural norms haven't kept up with medical advances. "People have called me crazy and looked at me like I have two heads," says Diane Zocchia, who gave her cousin a kidney five years ago and works for the National Kidney Registry, a nonprofit group that facilitates living-kidney donation. "When they find out there is no financial gain," says Ms. Zocchia, "they really think you're nuts."

More than 87,000 people are on the national waiting list for kidneys from deceased donors, a number that is growing steadily. In Los Angeles County, the average wait is now more than 10 years. Only living donors can make up the difference, and that requires changing attitudes.

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