Palatine resident Steven Zachar says he was "in the right place at the right time" to be one of six people who received kidney donations from six healthy donors in a remarkable sequence of surgeries.
The 12 procedures were performed late last week at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago -- four a day for three days, starting Feb. 21.
"The whole process seems so unbelievable," said Zachar, 65, a former music teacher and band director at Highland Park's Northwood Junior High School. "I'm so thankful ... to the first donor and all the donors who made it possible, and the people at Northwestern."
Zachar isn't the only suburban resident in the group. Philip Cameli of Naperville and Daisy Ruiz of Pingree Grove were among the donors; Brendan Flaherty of Naperville and Clotilde Ruiz of Carpentersville were among the recipients.
All six donors and all six recipients are doing well after the procedures, the hospital said in a news release.
Diagnosed in college
The kidneys are bean-shaped organs that extract waste from blood and create urine, among other important tasks. Most people are born with two but need only one to live.
Zachar was a college student in 1973 when he was diagnosed with chronic glomerulonephritis, a slow deterioration of both kidneys.
The cause wasn't determined, but an infection was suspected, Zachar said. Doctors at the time said his kidneys could last 20 years.
No treatment was necessary, although Zachar adopted a low-protein diet about 20 years ago to prolong his kidneys' usefulness.
The disease caused Zachar to often become tired and not have much energy, and that worsened over the last decade as his kidney function decreased.
By 2010, Zachar's kidneys were functioning 20 percent as well as healthy organs, and he enrolled in the transplant program at Northwestern Memorial.
The anticipated wait for a transfer was five years.
"The theory was to find a match before I would have to go on dialysis," Zachar said.
He took himself out of consideration for a transplant more than two years ago because of an unrelated family medical issue but reactivated his name on the list this year after that situation was resolved.
The hospital calls
Nearly three weeks ago, Zachar got a call from the hospital about a possible chain of living kidney donors, including one who was medically compatible with him.
Transplanted kidneys from live donors are preferable because survival rates are better than with organs from dead donors, according to the Living Kidney Donors Network. Additionally, living donor kidneys usually start functioning immediately while organs from a dead donor can take from a few days to a few weeks to begin functioning.
Zachar went for tests Feb. 13 and had the surgery Feb. 23.
"My surgery was the last one to complete the chain," Zachar said.
The sequence started with a donor who wishes to remain anonymous, the hospital said. The patients included three sets of friends, an aunt and her niece, and two cousins.
The donors who are friends with or related to recipients didn't necessarily give kidneys to their friends or relatives, because not all of them matched, the hospital said. Instead, some donated to strangers.
Large chains are rare
Dr. Joseph Leventhal, surgical director of Northwestern Memorial's kidney transplant program, said it's unusual to have a transplant chain involving so many patients at a single center.
The only larger chain he can recall at the hospital involved 16 patients and occurred eight or nine years ago.
Most large transplant chains start with a good Samaritan who wants to donate a kidney to anyone who may need it, and that's what happened in this case, Leventhal said. A computer program helped the Northwestern Memorial staff identify potentially compatible pairs.
"(There's) a lot of coordination, a lot of choreography," Leventhal said.
'We are so grateful'
Many of the patients, including Zachar, gathered with hospital staff members this week for a news conference. Zachar attended, but his donor, a 49-year-old woman he's never met, did not.
"We'd very much like to thank her," he said.
Clotilde Ruiz, 59, who had suffered from diabetes-related kidney failure, received an organ from 19-year-old Philip Cameli as part of the chain. Ruiz's daughter, Blanca Castro, said her mom is recovering and "feels amazing."
"We are so grateful," Castro said. "We don't have any words."
Clotilde Ruiz's niece, Daisy Ruiz, had been tested as a possible donor for her aunt, but the women didn't match. However, Daisy Ruiz was a match for a 44-year-old man awaiting a transplant, and so her left kidney went to him as part of the chain.
Ruiz was happy to help someone else, knowing it meant her aunt -- the family matriarch -- would receive a new kidney.
"It's like a blessing on top of a blessing," Ruiz said.