On Saturday, July 6, Stevie Wonder announced that he will take time off from touring in order to undergo a kidney transplant. The news surprised many fans who did not even know the singer had kidney disease or that his kidneys were failing.
While it is happy news, many were left wondering if celebrity or wealth allow the rich and famous to skip the wait. In Illinois alone, there are currently 3,332 patients awaiting a kidney transplant. In 2018, only 798 patients received one. The current wait for a deceased donor kidney is between five and eight years in Illinois, with African-American adults often waiting the longest.
The narrative that celebrities skip the waiting list is a myth. There are two ways to receive a kidney transplant:
1. Your name is placed on the organ transplant list and you wait for a deceased donor kidney.
A deceased donor is someone who died and donated a healthy kidney. This person or their family decided to donate their organs upon their death. A deceased donor can save or enhance up to 25 lives by donating their organs, eyes and tissue. Only 2% of all registered organ donors die in a manner that allows for whole organ transplantation. If your transplant center calls with a match, surgery will take place within a couple of hours.
The United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) manages the list of all the people across the US waiting for an organ transplant. UNOS ensures that deceased donor organs are distributed fairly using a transparent system. For kidneys, this is a combination of blood-type and antibody matching, time with kidney failure, and a few other factors that give people priority on the list (including being a child or being a past live kidney donor).
Waiting time can depend on factors such as:
ABO (blood type). Blood type O has the longest wait. This is because blood type O donors can donate to other blood groups, but a patient with blood type O can only receive an organ from a donor with blood type O. Also, it has been found that those with blood type B tend to have longer wait times as well.
Prior pregnancies, blood transfusions, or past transplants. These increase a substance in your body called antibodies. A higher level of antibodies in your blood can make it more difficult to match with a compatible donor.
Changes to the US organ allocation system (2014) have impacted the way kidneys are allocated to patients. These changes to the waitlist have allowed some flexibility with the factors listed above. For example, donor matching is now done to more closely match the age of the donor and recipient. This means a kidney coming from a 30-year old donor will more likely go to someone in that age range. This is called longevity matching.
Another big change that was made has to do with patients who joined the waitlist after being on dialysis. You now build wait-time from the time that you started dialysis- or from when it is documented that your GFR dropped to below 20.
Finally, extra priority is now also given to patients who are extraordinarily hard to match because of having high levels of antibodies from prior transplants, blood transfusions or pregnancies.
2. You find a living donor.
Living donation takes place when a live person donates an organ (or part of an organ) for transplantation to another person. The living donor can be a family member, a friend or even a stranger. Donors are thoroughly evaluated and cleared for donation only if it does not significantly increase the risk to their own health. These types of transplants are usually scheduled a few months in advance of the surgery.
Many people find their living donors by sharing their need for an organ on social media, on their cars, in coffee shops, by wearing t-shirts, and most importantly: by speaking with family and friends. For more information on how to find a living donor and how to ask someone to donate their kidney, attend our upcoming workshop, The Big Ask, The Big Give or click here for helpful tools.
Finding a living donor who is an exact match is not the only way to have a successful transplant. Many patients can participate in what is called a paired kidney exchange, also known as a kidney swap. This occurs when a living kidney donor is not a match with their recipient and the pair exchanges kidneys with another donor and recipient pair where each donor is a match for the other recipient. These kinds of swaps or chains have increased the number of transplants taking place and resulted in more lives being saved.
In the case that an altruistic donor (a donor who simply wants to donate their kidney without a recipient in mind) appears, their kidney goes to the first-available matching recipient on the transplant waiting list.
It is also important to note that a celebrity may have been living with chronic kidney disease or kidney failure for quite some time before going public with the news. We wish Stevie and his donor smooth surgeries and speedy recoveries.