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By Catherine Arnst The Internet can do more than help you find a date -- it can help you find a kidney. Since last October, MatchingDonors.com, a nonprofit Web site based in Canton, Mass., has been helping patients who desperately need a new liver or kidney find living donors who take altruism to a new level.
The vast majority of organ transplants, from donors both living and dead, are managed by the federally sponsored United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). UNOS allocates organs according to medical urgency, time spent on the waiting list, and the proximity of the patient to the available organ. But there aren't nearly enough available organs. There are currently some 88,000 people in need of an organ listed with UNOS, and the network says that only 4,373 transplants were performed in the U.S. between January and May 6 of this year. It's estimated that 17 people die every day while waiting for transplants.
ADJUSTMENT PERIOD. Patients seeking to jump the long waiting line can join MatchingDonors for fees starting at $295 for 30 days. There, some 2,000 potential donors are listed, all willing to donate an organ to complete strangers for nothing more than goodwill (since it's illegal to sell organs).
Once a patient and potential donor find each other, the patient's transplant coordinator schedules both a medical and psychiatric evaluation of the person seeking to give up a piece of his or her body. "We met with some resistance from some hospitals at the beginning but not so much any more," says MatchingDonors founder and medical director Dr. Jeremiah Lowney. "After all, we're doing a good thing here."
So far, seven members have received transplants from donors they found on the site. The most recent was on May 4: Bill Gibby, a 24-year-old from Anchorage, Alaska, with a wife and year-old son, donated a kidney to 33-year-old Kathy Lee of San Diego, whom he met for the first time when he flew down for the operation. MatchingDonors arranged for an airline to donate the airfare, and Lee's Insurance paid Gibby's health costs.
A BETTER WORLD. Gibby acknowledges that his friends thought he was crazy at first, and his family was worried about the health risks, but he was determined to go through with the procedure. "I figure the more people I can help, the better place the earth will be" says Gibby. He's facing a six-week recovery period, part of which will be spent at Lee's home. And he has no second thoughts. After his surgery Gibby says "the happiest part was when the doctor came in and said [Lee's] kidney is working really well. That made it all super."
Despite such altruism on the part of donors, some in the medical world are concerned about the idea of looking for organs online. To explore the issue, Harvard Medical School is set to hold a public forum on May 12 titled "Soliciting Organs over the Internet," bringing together Lowney with several medical ethicists and transplant surgeons. But given the very poor odds of finding an organ donor the traditional way, ethical concerns may hold little sway with desperate patients. Arnst is a writer for BusinessWeek in New York