• BREAKING NEWS ABC shows live and on-demand -- Download the WATCH ABC app!

SoCal kidney-transplant chain reaches 30 recipients

February 20, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
Doctors are calling it the world's largest kidney transplant chain. It involved 30 donors and 30 recipients from all across the United States. And it all started with one Good Samaritan in Southern California. Doctors working on this case call it an example of "paying it forward" with organs.

Donating your kidney is one of the greatest gifts you can give. Riverside resident Rick Ruzzamenti donated his to a complete stranger, more or less on a whim after hearing the clerk at his yoga studio had donated. In the process, he started something truly unprecedented.

Ruzzamenti's kidney went to a recipient in New Jersey. From there, another donor sent a kidney to Wisconsin, and on and on, reaching 30 recipients in 11 states.

How does the chain work? If a parent needs a kidney, but their child's kidney is incompatible with the parent, they give it to a stranger instead. The same is true for a husband and wife, sister and brother.

"A stranger can come forward and give to your husband and then you could pay it forward to another incompatible couple downstream of that, and then that person's donor who's incompatible can pay it forward to another recipient somewhere else in the country," said Dr. John Milner, Loyola University Medical Center.

It was the longest recorded chain so far, including 30 donors, 30 recipients, 17 hospitals and 11 states.

Paulette Behan is recipient number 12. She received her kidney in September.

"I feel incredibly different," said Paulette. "I've got so much more energy. I can do all those things I quit doing because I didn't have the energy."

The chain kept going because Behan's sister donated to a stranger after she was told she was not compatible with Behan.

Before his transplant, Don Terry spent four hours a day hooked up to a dialysis machine.

"When the doctor called me and told me that he had a kidney and that he was going to donate -- I can't tell you how -- I actually burst down in tears," said Terry.

Post-transplant, Terry's life is completely different.

"Today, after being two months out from my surgery, I feel phenomenal," said Terry.

The chain ended with Don Terry because he didn't know a donor to keep the chain going.

Doctors hope this story will serve as an inspiration for more people to give. Currently kidney patients wait as long as five to 10 years for a transplant.