Lisa Fundis has a new kidney – donated from her daughter, Lily – a new life and a “jump to the front of the line” voucher in case she ever needs another kidney.

Fundis, 54, owns the voucher thanks to her husband, George. The family participated in a new national program that aims to increase the number of living donors by permitting relatives or friends to donate a kidney and in return designate someone to be first in line to receive a donated kidney if they need one later on. The voucher is non-transferable.

The kidney voucher is a life-saving program that has the potential to grow, advocates say.

The need for organ donors far outstrips the supply, according to the National Kidney Foundation, with 101,000 Americans awaiting kidney transplants while hospitals, limited by the number of organs available, can perform only about 17,000 transplants per year.

About 65 percent of all transplants come from deceased donors, and advocates have been looking for ways to increase the number of living donors to increase the supply. The average wait time for a kidney transplant is more than three years, according to the foundation.

The voucher program started in 2014 in California and has since expanded to 59 hospitals, according to the National Kidney Registry website. Nationwide, 46 vouchers were granted in 2018 to people who may one day need a kidney.

Dr. Juan Palma-Vargas, who heads up the transplant program at Maine Medical Center in Portland, said the voucher program holds great promise because of its flexibility and the opportunity it creates for people to donate a kidney now and help a relative or friend later.

“The need is always so much greater than the supply,” Palma-Vargas said. “Anything we can do to encourage and bring awareness to living donors will help.”

Maine joined the voucher program in 2017, and there have been three kidney donors who have obtained vouchers for three other people.

Maine Med – the only hospital in Maine that performs kidney transplants – does about 40 to 50 of the procedures per year. In 2018, 26 of the 42 kidney transplants were from living donors.

Transplanted kidneys often do not have the same life span as the recipient. Kidneys from a deceased donor have a lifespan of only about a decade, but kidneys from a living donor last longer, about 20 years on average.

So even after a person suffering from kidney disease receives a transplant, they will often need another one later, especially if they’re young. Or sometimes the body rejects the organ, causing the recipient to need another sooner than expected.

That’s where the voucher program can play a critical role.

For George Fundis, 65, the voucher program was not why he became an altruistic donor. Once he signed up to see if he was a match for his wife – he wasn’t – he was determined to help someone else.

“The voucher wasn’t a motivating factor, but when I heard about it, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s really cool,’ ’’Fundis said.

He said there’s some comfort in knowing that Lisa will be at the front of the line for a transplant if she ever needs one. But George Fundis said that after experiencing three years of dialysis, and an “on again, off again” process before Lisa could receive her kidney, he knows what other families are going through, and helping another family became his mission.

“The psychological toll this takes on a family is excruciating,” Fundis said. “It’s my way of saying I can help. I know I can do this for someone’s family.”

Fundis said he doesn’t know much about the recipient of his kidney – those who receive kidneys from altruistic donors don’t have to reveal their identity to their donor – but he knows what they went through.

“I feel like I know everything about them except their names,” Fundis said.

Lisa Fundis was staring at a seven- to nine-year wait for a donor because she has a rare blood type – B negative – and her husband was not a match.

Even after her daughter Lily volunteered to donate, Lisa Fundis had to get her weight under control before she could receive the transplant. She said being on dialysis, fatigued from kidney disease and working full-time as a medical assistant left her no energy for exercising, and she was also retaining a lot of water because of the disease.

“It was like, ‘You are on the list, no you’re not.’ It was always something,” Lisa Fundis said.

Lily said she got her mother back after the transplant.

“Before the transplant, she was gray, always seemed tired and had both eyes sunken in,” Lily Fundis said.

Lisa got her daughter’s kidney on Jan. 30, 2018 and now has a ruddy, vital complexion and much more energy.

George donated his kidney on Jan. 29 of this year, and now someone he donated to anonymously – an older man in Pennsylvania is all he knows about the family – has a kidney.

And because of George’s donation, Lisa Fundis has a voucher if she ever needs it.

“It is great peace of mind, to know that it’s there,” Lisa Fundis said.

 VOUCHER FOR A FRIEND

 When Kristin Salway, 45, of South Portland heard that her friend’s son needed a kidney transplant, she wanted to help if she could. She wasn’t a match for Justin Neuville – his father, James was – but she still wanted to help.

Justin received his father’s kidney in 2016 and Salway followed up with a kidney donation that allowed Justin to secure a voucher in 2017.

“The world is a tough enough place, and when I heard about Justin I thought this was a chance to do something good,” Salway said. “It’s nice to do something and not expect something in return.”

Salway was the first kidney donor in Maine to participate in the voucher program.

Neuville, 21, now has a voucher to move to the front of the line in case he outlives his kidney, which is likely because he is so young.

“I’m obviously grateful to everyone who wants to do what’s best for others,” Neuville said. “If I ever do need another kidney it will be really nice to not have to wait.”

He said he experienced numerous complications from the kidney transplant, but now is doing better and is taking animation classes part-time at York County Community College and working part-time at a grocery store.

Tracy Neuville, Justin’s mom, said her son had kidney disease from birth, but his kidneys didn’t start declining until late adolescence.

But when they did, his kidney function rapidly dwindled. He got the transplant before he needed to go on dialysis.

She said it was “very nice” for Salway to donate her kidney, but she’s somewhat skeptical that the voucher system will be the same 20 years from now.

“If he needs it, will it be automatic? I don’t know,” Tracy Neuville said. “I still feel like there’s a lot of unknowns.”

Salway, a medical technician, doesn’t know hardly anything about the person she donated to, but she likes the idea that she helped someone now, and could help Justin in the future.

“I thought this would be a good way to pay it forward,” Salway said.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: joelawlorph

 

 

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