February 16, 2013

Augusta man reaches out for ultimate gift: a new kidney

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

How much would you be willing to give to a complete stranger in dire need?

click image to enlarge

Bill Nemitz

Portland Press Herald file photo by John Ewing

A dollar?

Ten dollars?

How about a kidney?

"I've never been a person that's wanted to broadcast my need," said Andy Loman in the quiet of his Augusta home last week. "I've always been a little bit uncomfortable with that."

But desperate times call for desperate measures. Thus, while most Mainers celebrated Valentine's Day on Thursday, Loman found himself fixated on the fact that it was also National Donor Day.

As in organ donors.

"There are five stages of kidney failure, and I'm in stage four," Loman explained. "I'm seriously compromised."

When he last appeared in this column, on New Year's Day in 2010, Loman, now 65, was a man reborn.

A heart attack, suffered in 2008 while working out at his local gym, had left him at death's door with a ventricular assist device implanted in his abdomen. For 13 seemingly endless months, the constantly whirring pump picked up where his damaged heart left off.

Then in April 2009, a 40-year-old man near Worcester, Mass., died and his family agreed to donate all of his organs. The man's heart now beats inside Loman's chest.

"A day doesn't go by that I don't think about my heart donor," said Loman, who reached out via letter to thank the man's family but never heard back. Their grief, he suspects, prevents them from responding.

For Loman, meanwhile, life was once again good.

A licensed clinical social worker, he went on with his work as manager of co-occurring disorders treatment at Spring Harbor Hospital in Westbrook and at the state's Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta.

He resumed his vigorous daily exercise regimen, volunteered at the Maine State Museum in Augusta, taught medical students part-time at Maine Medical Center in Portland and even accepted an appointment to the Augusta Historic Preservation Commission.

But even as his new heart worked like a charm, Loman's kidneys were in decline. Damaged by the heart attack and ensuing treatment, they've deteriorated to the point that his creatinine count -- a measure of how well the kidney is removing waste from the body -- is now twice what it should be.

Meaning, as Loman's nephrologist recently told him, he soon will find himself on another transplant waiting list -- the one for kidneys.

But this time is different.

Heart transplants obviously depend on someone else's demise. Yet "live donor" kidney transplants -- while we each have two, we can get by perfectly well with just one -- happen to the tune of more than 5,000 nationally per year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.

Some are "directed" donations, meaning a patient obtains a new kidney directly from a relative or friend with the same blood type and a compatible immune system.

Others involve "paired" donations in which a patient and directed donor whose blood types don't match pair up with a compatible couple in the same situation and, all in the same day, swap donated kidneys so each patient gets a match.

Then there are the "altruistic" donors who simply step up and offer a kidney to whomever might need one.

"Personally, I've been working with living donors for six years now and every single one of them are awesome human beings," said Roxanne Taylor, living-donation coordinator for Maine Medical Center's Maine Transplant Program.

"They're heroes," agreed Mary Biggar, the program's pre-transplant coordinator.

They're also outnumbered: Maine Medical Center performed 44 kidney transplants last year. But as of last week, 103 names filled the Maine Transplant Program's waiting list.

(Continued on page 2)

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