It all started with Stanley Galvin, who contacted Maine Medical Center one day, offering to donate his kidney to a stranger.

That stranger ended up being Jim McLaughlin, and Galvin’s selfless gesture as part of Maine Med’s kidney donation program started a chain reaction of six surgeries and three Mainers who received new kidneys at Maine Medical Center in Portland on Nov. 4.

The six donors and recipients met each other for the first time Monday, the first time in Maine that paired kidney donations affecting this many people had been completed, according to hospital doctors.

“I don’t understand why you did this, Stanley. Why?” asked Jim McLaughlin’s wife, Mary Ann, who donated a kidney herself.

The question dangled in the air while Galvin paused, contemplating an answer.

“I’m just going to say, ‘Because,'” Galvin said, a mischevious smile brightening his face.

McLaughlin arched her eyebrows and seemed befuddled at Galvin’s lack of a motive, other than altruism.

“I can’t imagine,” McLaughin said, before concluding, “You’re a great guy, Stanley, a great guy.”

“I don’t know if we’ll become friends, but I’ll probably send (Galvin) a Christmas card,” said Jim McLaughlin, 75, laughing.

There were no tears, hugs or outward signs of emotion as the six donors and recipients met, but they all talked about how they were motivated to help friends or family or, in Galvin’s case, just someone in need.

Galvin’s decision — along with the willingness of Mary Ann McLaughlin and George Shepard to donate their own kidneys — led to the surgeries done in one day.

Doctors Juan Palma and James Whiting performed 15 hours of surgeries starting at 6 a.m. and ending at 9 p.m. Palma worked on the donors’ surgeries, while Whiting completed the recipients’ surgeries. About 50 other doctors, nurses and medical professionals participated in the marathon session.

The program works by matching donors willing to give up a kidney, even for someone to whom they aren’t related. For instance, while Mary Ann McLaughlin was willing to donate to her husband, their kidneys were not a match. In the past, that would have been a dead end, and Jim would have likely had to wait years for another willing donor, probably from someone who died.

But increasingly, through the paired donation program at Maine Med and similar programs across the country, live donors can be coordinated with recipients. Maine Med doctors described the system as a “Match.com for kidneys.”

Nationally, such programs have grown from a few dozen annually to more than 400 per year and that number is growing, Palma said, as the medical community realizes their effectiveness.

Kidney donors can live normal lives with just one kidney, as the body takes on the functions of both kidneys when one is removed.

“This was right before our eyes the whole time,” Palma said. “You don’t have to be a match with a relative or a friend to help. If you’re willing and healthy, you can be a live donor.”

Galvin, a Washington retiree who moved to Pemaquid on a whim with his wife four years ago, said he couldn’t pinpoint a reason to donate to a stranger, other than the stories he read in the newspaper and the reports he saw on TV about the need for kidney donors.

He’s not a known philanthropist, he said, not the type to join Knights of Columbus, Rotary Club, Habitat for Humanity or United Way.

“I’m not a joiner. Not that I have anything against those organizations, but they just don’t interest me,” Galvin said. He doesn’t know anyone who has kidney disease, and no one in his family has suffered from dysfunctional kidneys.

But Galvin, a retired Washington prison official and small farmer of goats, llamas, sheep and ducks, said that after reading about altruistic kidney donors two years ago, he knew it was what he wanted to do. Several months ago, a television report about a donor and recipient running a race together spurred him into action. Galvin said he can’t describe his attitude other than as a strong pull.

“I saw it on TV, made the decision, and that was it,” Galvin said.

Galvin, 67, said he called Maine Med in late spring, filled out numerous forms, passed some medical tests and by the fall had cleared all the requirements.

A few weeks before the surgery, transplant coordinators told him that it was a go, and it was only then that he told his four children what he was planning to do.

“I told them that I was going to donate a kidney, and that I would listen to their opinion, but it was something I had to do and I wasn’t changing my mind,” Galvin said. “They told me I was so compassionate, that I had a big heart, and I didn’t get a single negative response. That surprised me.”

For Jan Bohlin, a matter-of-fact talk with his best friend, George “Kenny” Shepard, last winter, resulted in Shepard offering to donate his kidney. Shepard was not a match for Bohlin, but his willingness to donate led to Bohlin, 65, receiving a healthy kidney from Mary Ann McLaughlin.

“Kenny told me, ‘I don’t know how to say this, but I’m just going to say it, ‘You need a kidney donor, and I’m it,'” Bohlin said, recalling their lunch at Sea Dog restaurant in Topsham.

“It was a good lunch. I might have picked up the tab,” Bohlin said, laughing.

Shepard, 63, of Pittston, said it was the right thing to do.

“I was happy to do it, and we’ve been friends for 50 years. Why not?” he said.

Shepard’s kidney then went to Richard Cook, 72, a retired University of Maine professor.

Cook said he had suffered some heart problems this spring and thought it would jeopardize his chances of receiving a new kidney.

But in the fall, tests proved his heart was in good condition, and he was back in the program.

“It happened all at once, it was like, ‘Boom, there’s a live donor and here we go,'” Cook said. “It’s a fantastic thing.”

The McLaughlins say they can look forward to more years in which Jim can keep up with Mary Ann’s hiking adventures. Mary Ann McLaughlin is an avid hiker who has bagged Mt. Kilimanjaro and many New England peaks.

“The last thing I wanted to do was go on dialysis,” said Jim McLaughlin, who was not yet on dialysis but would have likely ended up on the machines if not for Galvin’s kidney. “I come from good Irish stock.”

McLaughlin said Galvin is “unbelievable.”

“You can’t express the proper appreciation you have for someone who’s so unselfish,” McLaughlin said. “Physically, emotionally and mentally, I feel great.”

Galvin, meanwhile, said he looks forward to a Maine retirement filled with kayaking, bicycling and hiking.

“I know I made the right decision,” he said.

Joe Lawlor — 791-6376

[email protected]

Twitter: @joelawlorph


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