Iowan gives a kidney in honor of her dad, starting a lifesaving transplant chain

May 27, 2018

This might go down as the ultimate in paying it forward.

Twenty years ago, Tonja Downey’s father received a kidney and pancreas transplant at the Nebraska Medical Center.

The transplant allowed him to return to work, to watch Tonja and her two siblings marry, to enjoy his nine grandchildren.

Her father’s kidney ultimately failed in 2015. Because of other health problems, he wasn’t eligible for another transplant. He died a year ago.

Looking back, Downey, of Clarinda, Iowa, saw how donation had affected her father and their family, including her own children. “Having doughnuts with grandpa was always a big thing,” she said.

To honor her father and his donor, Downey signed up to be an anonymous living donor. Her gift multiplied when she became the first link in the medical center’s latest kidney transplantation chain.

On Friday, she and six other living donors and the seven people who received their organs gathered at the medical center with transplant staff to celebrate what the new chain had wrought and marvel at the ripple effect of the gift her family received long ago.

“It’s hard to know who to thank the most,” said Dr. Alan Langnas, chief of transplant surgery for Nebraska Medicine. “It just speaks to the generosity of the human spirit.”

Living-donor kidney transplant chains start with a single person willing to donate an organ to someone he or she has never met. That allows patients with incompatible donors to swap kidneys for a compatible one. The only thing donors get is the knowledge that their intended recipient will get a kidney in the exchange.

Such exchanges help fill the gap between the number of kidneys available for donation and the number of patients who need transplants.

Currently, 100,000 people are waiting for kidneys in the United States, said Vicki Hunter, manager of the kidney-pancreas program at the hospital.

“We’re looking at doing more of these exchanges and bigger ones so we can get more of the people transplants,” she said.

Last year, the medical center, which has 223 people on its list, completed 52 living-donor transplants. About 40 percent of them were involved in a chain. Last June, the medical center marked what remains the largest single-hospital living-donor kidney transplant chain in Nebraska history — a total of 18 people, nine living donors and nine recipients from across Nebraska and one other state. It also ranked as one of the largest chains at a single hospital in the United States.

After the donors and recipients were introduced, Downey got to meet Kalub Kunik, the Council Bluffs man who received her kidney. His sister had volunteered to give him a kidney but didn’t prove a match.

Kunik, like Downey’s father, has Type 1 diabetes.

Before the transplant last fall, Kunik, who also has three children, ages 9, 3 and 4 months, had been feeling ill for about three years and on kidney dialysis for a year.

“Now I feel like a million bucks,” he said.