Altruism: Meet Your (Kidney) Match

After reading a newspaper article about living organ donation, Susan Buonsante, a 38-year-old mother of two, decided to donate one of her kidneys to a stranger. She looked online and found a woman, also a mother of two children, who needed a kidney.

But the nearby University of Colorado Hospital in Denver refused to perform the surgery. Indeed, it took almost half a year to find a hospital willing to transplant Buonsante's healthy kidney to Karen Traxler, a woman with congenital kidney failure.

That's because the two women met via MatchingDonors.com, a controversial Web site, whereas most organ donations are made posthumously or to family or close friends. Buonsante is one of thousands who have offered to donate their living tissue on the Web site.

Critics believe the not-for-profit site, launched in 2004, is subverting the traditional donation process, in which tissue is awarded to the people who most need it, based on a list administered by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS).

Jeremy Lowney, a doctor who helped start MatchingDonors.com, believes that by increasing the number of available organs, the Web site is augmenting the system, not subverting it.

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"For anyone you can take off the list, others move up," he says. He hopes the site will decrease the number of people who die each year waiting for a transplant—currently about 6,000 of 89,000 on the list. To date, Lowney's site has produced only 15 transplants, but two dozen more are in process, and the trend is moving upward.

UNOS hasn't taken an official stand on MatchingDonors.com. The organization's primary concern about the site, says spokeswoman Anne Paschke, is making sure that living donors understand the risks, which include infection and even death.

But Douglas Hanto, chief of transplantation at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, is more outspoken. Rather than giving to the neediest people, he contends the site allows donors to pick beneficiaries based on biographies that not only haven't been checked for accuracy but have nothing to do with need. "It's who has the cutest kids, can write the nicest story or is most photogenic," he says.

Lowney counters that people who give to all kinds of charities prefer to know where their donation is going. Allowing directed donations, he believes, increases the total number of donors.

Hanto disagrees. A survey found that 93 percent of potential living donors would give without knowing the recipient if that were the only option.

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